Chances are, you’ve never heard of this. That is, unless you read Thomas Mueller’s 2011 exposé on olive oil, Extra Virginity. For those who haven’t, here’s a brief précis that will get you up to date: Most Americans don’t know that high quality olive oil should have a peppery, biting taste to it, a state of ignorance due to the fact that we consume low quality, heavily processed, often adulterated oil masquerading as extra virgin olive oil. A few years ago, a biopsychologist on vacation in Italy attended a class on molecular gastronomy, and was surprised to discover a biting sensation in the back of his throat on consuming olive oil. More surprising, however, was that he recognized that biting flavor immediately – it was uniquely similar to the taste of ibuprofen, a compound whose flavor he’d been investigating very recently. Interested by this similarity, he embarked on a series of experiments to isolate the compound that was causing this taste effect, and eventually found a wholly novel and unique compound he termed ‘oleocanthal.’

This compound, though dissimilar from ibuprofen in chemical structure, has displayed a similar anti-inflammatory effect in laboratory testing, and I’m writing about it today because I believe that it’s a compound we will be hearing more about in the near future. I would anticipate that it will become commercially available fairly soon, and that it is also likely to be picked up by pharmaceutical companies, who will probably be researching the effects of synthetic analogs of oleocanthal for use as a drug.

That said, there’s not much information about this product at the moment. Some basic lab testing has shown that it does have an anti-inflammatory effect, as it inhibits the same cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes that the conventional NSAIDs inhibit. Some additional lab testing has shown that oleocanthal inhibits some of the processes associated with inflammatory joint conditions. This certainly gives us some indication that oleocanthal may have a role to play in the standard aches and pains that plague many of us, so it’s possible that it may be marketed for this effect.

More interestingly, however, there has been some research into oleocanthal’s effects in cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The cancer research has indicated that oleocanthal may have a role to play in slowing the progression of certain types of cancers. A study of oleocanthal on isolated breast and prostate cancer cells indicated that the compound inhibits the profileration, migration and invasion of the cells – in plain English, this means that the cells are less likely to grow in the first place, and are less likely to metastasize when tumors have developed. Other polyphenols found in olive oil has demonstrated a similar inhibition of carcinogenesis (1, 2), though this compound hasn’t received the same press as oleocanthal.

The studies done on Alzheimer’s are similarly in the lab testing phase, but do show promising results. Oleocanthal has been shown to inhibit tau fibrillation (1, 2). Of course this doesn’t mean a lot to lay readers of this blog, but the significance of this discovery is that it means that oleocanthal may prevent the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease by preventing the molecular changes that cause Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is not fully understood, however, and it’s possible that other biochemical causes lie at the root of this debilitating disease – oleocanthal has been observed to inhibit those changes as well.

If the past 15 years have taught us anything in medicine, it’s that inflammatory processes underlie just about every major chronic disease, from heart disease to rheumatoid arthritis to cancer to Alzheimer’s. Interest in anti-inflammatory foods, diets, herbs and drugs has increased as we have learned more about this process, and it’s no surprise that we are discovering more and more anti-inflammatory compounds in nature. Curcumin, found in turmeric, was discovered some years ago, and has now been the subject of thousands of research articles. Oleocanthal, a more recent discovery, is still poorly understood, but I believe that we are likely to see it grow exponentially in importance in the next few years.

In the meantime, if you haven’t read Extra Virginity, pick up a copy – it’s one of the better reads I’ve come across in recent months.