Olive oil component has ibuprofen-like activity

Janis Kelly

September 06, 2005

Sept 6, 2005

Philadelphia, PA - Diets rich in olive oil have been associated with numerous health benefits, including antiplatelet activity [ 1 ], but the mechanism behind these effects has remained obscure. A team of researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center (University of the Sciences, Philadelphia, PA) has discovered that oleocanthal, a component found in extra-virgin olive oil, is "a natural anti-inflammatory compound that has a potency and profile strikingly similar to that of ibuprofen" [ 2 ].

We feel that oleocanthal may be a possible bridge between the diet's and the NSAIDs' benefits.

"Chronic use of aspirin and ibuprofen are associated with reduced risk of several diseases, including vascular disease (cardiac and brain), some cancers (breast, lung, colon) and dementias including Alzheimer's disease. The Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil is associated with the same reduction of disease risks. We feel that oleocanthal may be a possible bridge between the diet's and the NSAIDs' benefits," senior author Dr Paul AS Breslin tells rheuma wire .

Main clue: A bit of throat irritation

This discovery illustrates Pasteur's adage that "fortune favors the prepared mind"—or in this instance, throat.

"We know from prior research experience on anti-inflammatory compounds that ibuprofen irritates the back of the throat but not the mouth. This is a unique experience that differs, say, from the burn of biting a chili pepper, which will irritate the mouth, lips, and tongue as well as throat," Breslin says.

While Breslin's colleague Dr Gary Beauchamp was attending a meeting in Sicily on molecular gastronomy, he sampled some freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil and noticed this same unusual throat sting.

"He brought it back to Philadelphia and asked me to try it. I immediately knew what he was excited about: there must be something ibuprofenlike in the olive oil. This launched a research program that resulted in this paper," Breslin says.

The investigators then set out to determine what components of the olive oil caused the throat irritation and whether they had any anti-inflammatory activity. In fact, newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal, both enantiomers of which cause dose-dependent inhibition of both COX-1 and COX-2, but not of lipoxygenase.

Breslin said that oleocanthal is present in fairly high levels in extra-virgin olive oil but not in other types of olive oil and that the level of oleocanthal varies with the ripeness of the olives at harvest, the varietal of the tree, and whether the oil is from a first pressing or later pressings.

Olive oil is not, however, likely to become a substitute for ibuprofen. The investigators found that oleocanthal is about as potent as ibuprofen but occurs in such low levels in the oil that about half a liter would be required to equal the dose in two standard ibuprofen tablets.

The researchers are currently trying to learn why ibuprofen and oleocanthal cause the same throat sting even though they have different structures. "There must be a physiological connection here," Breslin says. They also suspect a link between this type of throat irritation and the anti-COX activity.


  1. Togna GI, Togna AR, Franconi M, et al. Olive oil isochromans inhibit human platelet reactivity. J Nutr 2003; 133:2532-6.

  2. Beauchamp GK, Keast RSJ, Morel D, et al. Ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil. Nature 2005; 437:45-46.


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