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Top-quality olive oil 'like painkilling drug'


EXTRA-virgin olive oil has the soothing powers of a popular painkiller, a study has found.

Scientists believe it could explain why the Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil protects against heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.

Chefs and food writers often recommend buying the best olive oil that can be found - but a new reason to do so is that newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil also contains a compound that mimics the pain-relieving activity of ibuprofen - a member of the class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Dr Paul Breslin and his team at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia have discovered olive oil contains the compound oleocanthal which suppresses the same pain pathway as ibuprofen.

"Structurally, it's not similar but pharmacologically it's very similar," says Dr Breslin, whose findings are published in the journal Nature.

The researchers calculate that a 50g daily dose of olive oil is equivalent to about 10 per cent of the dose of ibuprofen recommended for adult pain relief.

So although it won't cure a headache, regular consumption of olive oil could confer some of the long-term benefits of ibuprofen - such as reduced cancer risk.

The researchers say this could help to explain some of the often-quoted benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

Inflammation increasingly is believed to play a key role in a variety of chronic diseases.

"Some of the health-related effects of the Mediterranean diet may be due to the natural activity of oleocanthal from premium olive oils," says Dr Gary Beauchamp, a Monell biologist.

The scientists were led to the discovery after realising fresh extra-virgin olive oil irritates the back of the throat in a unique and unusual way.

"I had considerable experience swallowing and being stung in the throat by ibuprofen from previous studies on its sensory properties," said Dr Beauchamp.

"So when I tasted newly-pressed olive oil while attending a meeting on molecular gastronomy in Sicily, I was startled to notice that the throat sensations were virtually identical," he said.

Taking their lead from the cues provided by olive oil's throaty bite, the scientists systematically evaluated the sensory properties of an unnamed chemical compound believed to be responsible for the throat-irritating property of premium olive oils.

When results confirmed that the irritating intensity of a given extra-virgin olive oil was directly related to how much of the chemical it contained, the researchers named the compound oleocanthal - "oleo" for olive and "canth", meaning sting.

To rule out the possibility of any other compound being involved, chemists created a synthetic form of oleocanthal identical in all respects to that found naturally in olive oil - and showed it produced exactly the same throat irritation.

The study's co-author, Dr Amos Smith, said: "Only by synthesis could we be absolutely certain that the active ingredient was oleocanthal." The sensory similarities between oleocanthal and ibuprofen led scientists to investigate potential common pharmacological properties.

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