1 September 2005: Olive oil works in the same way as some anti-inflammatory drugs
Further evidence for the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet has been uncovered with the discovery that a component of olive oil - the dialdehyde oleocanthal - has the same enzyme-inhibiting effects as ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen is known to have long term health benefits when taken in low doses because of its anti-inflammatory properties. But it also irritates some people's throats in a distinctive way.
While tasting fresh-pressed olive oil in Sicily, Gary Beauchamp, from Monell Chemical Senses Centre, Philadelphia, recognised the throat sensation from his studies into ibuprofen and suspected an ibuprofen-like effect was to blame. He took the oil back to Philadelphia, where oleocanthal was isolated.
'Really the link for us was the irritation,' research leader Paul Breslin, also from Monell, told Chemistry World. 'Without that experience this never would have happened.'
Breslin's team looked at olive oils that varied in 'irritation intensity' and correlated how irritating an oil was with the amount of oleocanthal it contained. 'There was a very tight relationship,' said Breslin.
The researchers also took non-irritating corn oil and added to it a synthesised oleocanthal at different concentrations to see what happened. 'It irritated both with the same quality and the same intensity as the naturally occurring form and this becomes virtually superimposable,' said Breslin. 'It was fairly compelling evidence.'
Oleocanthal, the dialdehydic form of (-)deacetoxy-ligostride aglycone, has no obvious structural similarity to ibuprofen. But not only does it irritate the throat of some people in the same way, it also inhibits the inflammatory enzymes COX-1 and COX-2 in the same way as does ibuprofen.
'It has allowed us to establish this link between the irritation that we associate with ibuprofen, with the pharmacology. There is somehow a link between its unique form of irritating the throat and the anti-COX activity of it,' said Breslin.
He has increased his olive oil intake since making the discovery. 'It's clear that olive oil - or in particular the Mediterranean diet where olive oil is the central pillar of it - is associated with many of the same benefits of aspirin and ibuprofen consumption.' Katharine Sanderson
G K Beauchamp et al, Nature, 2005, 437, 45