While tasting a newly pressed olive oil at a conference in Sicily last year, biologist Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., noticed a strangely familiar stinging sensation at the back of his throat. It reminded him of ibuprofen, a drug he’d swallowed many times before in liquid form during studies of its sensory properties at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Back at home, he isolated the compound in the oil that made his throat sting, and dubbed it oleocanthal (oleo=olive, canth=sting, al=aldehyde).
When Beauchamp’s research team studied oleocanthal in the test tube, they found the substance helped inhibit the activity of pain- and inflammation-producing enzymes—just like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs do. They speculated that the anti-inflammatory activity could explain some health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, of which olive oil is a prime component.