The Good Fat

By Marano, Hara Estroff | Psychology Today, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Good Fat


Marano, Hara Estroff, Psychology Today


(nature's bounty)

Real olive oil is grassy, sassy, and bites the back of the throat. That proves to be a real boon to the brain. By Hara Estroff Marano

IT WAS ONE of those crystalline moments when science and gastronomy came together and illuminated each other. Gary Beauchamp had just taken a swig of olive oil- not just any oil but a sampling from a small batch pressed nearby by a physicist and fellow participant at a conference on molecular gastronomy held in Erice, Sicily.

"It had a nice smell and nice mouthfeel," Beauchamp recalls. But as he swallowed the oil, he felt a strong stinging sensation in his throat. Perhaps only the world's leading sensory scientist could have been prepared for that experience. Since time immemorial, pungency has been a distinguishing mark of highquality extra virgin olive oil, a substance that is commonly adulterated and widely mislabeled. But Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, "had an epiphany." He had experienced that same stinging sensation once before. It was identical to that produced by the anti- inflammatory agent Ibuprofen.

Beauchamp took a plastic Pepsi bottle filled with the Sicilian oil back with him to Philadelphia. "It was 1999, before we were prohibited from carrying liquids on planes." But it took him five years to explain why it stimulated pain in the back of the throat. In the process, he identified a new polyphenol component of extra virgin olive oil, oleocanthal, and discovered that it shares the anti-inflammatory properties of Ibuprofen. Like ibuprofen, Beauchamp and colleagues eventually reported in Nature, it inhibits cyclooxygenase enzymes in the body. And like ibuprofen, it may protect against various diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, by virtue of its COX-inhibiting ability.

Beauchamp believes that oleocanthal is responsible for many of die health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, including reduced risk of stroke and heart disease. He and others have also gathered evidence that oleocanthal is "both preventive and curative of the development of plaques in Alzheimer's disease." The findings are congruent with epidemiological evidence diat the illness is less prevalent in Mediterranean countries than in other parts of the world.

In recent studies conducted by sensory biologist Paul Breslin at Monell, oleocanthal interrupted the binding of toxic proteins that compromise nerve cell function and destroy memory in Alzheimer's disease. It actually changes the structure of the proteins so they cannot bind to and damage nerve cells. In addition, oleocanthal makes the toxic proteins more vulnerable to destruction and clearance by circulating antibodies.

"Throat irritation is a major characteristic of olive oil- and it's a positive one," says Beauchamp. Even if they didn't know its source, Europeans have long prized the pungency of fresh olive oil. In fact, olive oil is the only food legally defined by a taste test. To be designated "extra virgin," a premium grade commanding a premium price, every batch of olive oil has to pass a taste test conducted by a panel of experts in unanimous agreement.

The European Union defines extra virgin olive oil by three sensory properties. One is piquancy, a reflection of the many volatile polyphenols that underlie the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It has to be low in acidity, a sign that it is fresh, not oxidized or adulterated with lesser grades of olive oil. And it has to produce throat irritation; tasters often refer to a sample as a "one-cough" or "two-cough" oil. Two-cough is better. …

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