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Sep. 1--Scientists really do have "aha" moments, and Gary K. Beauchamp's came in 1999 atop a glorious mountain in western Sicily, overlooking the sea.
His "aha" led him to discover that a chemical in premium olive oil acts a lot like ibuprofen, the anti-inflammatory drug used to relieve headache and arthritis pain. That may help explain why the vaunted Mediterranean diet is so good for us.
So, which would you rather take for that throbbing migraine? Put another way: Pass the pasta!
Beauchamp, a biologist at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center, cautions against filling the medicine chest with Falconero just yet. He simply notes with irony that his discovery came about not because some of the world's most luscious olive oil tickled his tongue - but because it stung his throat.
In this week's journal Nature, published today, Beauchamp and colleagues lay out the story.
The setting for this oddball epiphany was a medieval castle in Erice, where Beauchamp had gathered with other scientists, cookbook authors and chefs for an international symposium on food science. In and around the talk about airy souffles and the nature of salt, he sipped something sublime: freshly pressed, extra virgin olive oil from family groves belonging to another attendee.
He noted its sunny color, its velvety feel and fruity aroma. And then, aha! The oil caught in his throat and made him cough.
Beauchamp recognized the irritation. He'd felt it during taste tests of liquid ibuprofen at Monell, the nonprofit research center he directs, which exists to learn about smell, taste and chemical sensation.
To make a long story short, he returned home and gave a taste of the Sicilian oil to fellow Monell scientist Paul A.S. Breslin, who had been studying ibuprofen.
"It became instantly clear to me there was something like ibuprofen in there," said Breslin, who knows intimately the bite of chili peppers and the tingle of ginger.
Thus began their three-year study, with help from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and 17 volunteers paid to taste 10 different olive oils purchased at the Italian Market in South Philadelphia and at a Greek deli near Breslin's home in Highland Park, N.J.
Volunteers wearing nose clips, so they could concentrate solely on taste, were given small samples of each oil. They were instructed to hold it in their mouths for three seconds, then swallow it in two gulps and, 45 seconds later, rate the intensity of the irritation in their throats.
As it turned out, the more irritation that was experienced, the more of the inflammation-fighting compound the oil contained. And the most irritating oils, in the gustatory sense, were the youngest, extra virgin ones.
Researchers called the compound oleocanthal and said its presence raises the possibility that consuming good olive oil over time may help protect against some diseases, just as ibuprofen does.
Ibuprofen is an over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that blocks the enzymes that can cause pain and inflammation. It is associated with lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke, certain cancers and dementia.
Some of the same advantages are ascribed to the popular Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in meat and dairy.
The Monell discovery delights Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee attended the Erice meeting with Beauchamp and tasted the same olive oil.
"Everybody who has olive oil of that kind experiences the sting in the throat, but it took Gary to realize that it was significant," McGee said.
Emile R. Mohler 3d, a cardiologist and director of vascular medicine for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, found Beauchamp's results "intriguing" and suggested further studies to explore whether oleocanthal bestows any specific cardiovascular benefits.
But eating a Mediterranean diet is only one part of a healthy lifestyle, said Mohler, who did not participate in the Nature study. "I think people are looking for that magic bullet, and we're not going to develop one."
Monell researchers said that the compound they found is sensitive to heat. To reap its anti-inflammatory benefit, then, we would have to drizzle it on cooked foods such as pasta, rather than use it to saute.
And we'd have to drizzle more than three tablespoons a day over many years.
That worries Althea Zanecosky, a registered dietitian who cautions that although olive oil is a marvelous thing, we should not - literally - be pouring it on.
"Olive oil still has 100 to 110 calories per tablespoon," she said, "and calories are the main reason people in this country are in so much trouble."
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