'We need rigorous published clinical data to prove that Oleocanthal is a promising compound'

"We need rigorous published clinical data to prove that Oleocanthal is a promising compound"

An Interview with Dr. Beauchamp, discoverer of Oleocanthal

2016/01/02 - In 2005 Gary Beauchamp, Emeritus Director and President, Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (USA), discovered that inside polyphenols of EVOO there is a substance named Oleocanthal, with a similar effect as NSAIDs used commonly in medicine but without the side effects of these drugs. The importance of this discovery is that under certain technical circumstances there is an amount/effect relationship whereby certain extra virgin olive oils become a preventive tool of choice for health care. This American scientist also belongs to the Oleocanthal International Society (OIS), an entity that was born in 2015 with a primary mission: to facilitate research on this compound.

You are an international expert in sensory organ research and discoverer of Oleocanthal, a compund you found in EVOO when you were tasting it for the first time in Sicily in 1999. What were your feelings at the moment? Did you like it?

Although I had often used olive oil in cooking and in salads, I had never tasted it as is done in the Mediterranean world -out of a wine glass- until a meeting on “molecular gastronomy” held in Erice, Sicily, in 1999. I was first directed to sniff it to appreciate its fragrance through the orthonasal route (that is as one would sniff a flower). Then I was instructed to take it into my mouth, notice the smoothness and then to swallow it.

Instantaneously I experienced a wonderful flavor of volatiles detected by the other smell route -the retronasal route- where the odor molecules travel from the mouth and up to the olfactory receptors high in the nasal cavity via the pharynx. But then after 5 or 10 seconds, while I was still savoring the wonderful flavor, I was startled to detect a growing tingle in my throat. That tingle was actually very familiar to me; it seemed identical to the tingle (pungency is another term) that I experienced when I studied the sensory properties of ibuprofen, a potent over-the counter anti-inflammatory compound. At that instant that I began to suspect that whatever in the olive oil that caused the tingle might also be an anti-inflammatory compound and perhaps this could help account for the health-related benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

There has been a gap of almost 6-7 years between the time you published your research in 2005 and 2012, date when the interest in Oleocanthal emerges in order to be studied. What happens during this period of time?

It is one thing to suggest or suspect that this compound has valuable health-beneficial effects. It is quite another to prove this. Quite soon after we published our work in 2005, investigators began asking for samples to do studies on various model systems of human disease. But there were (and still are) only 2 sources of the compound for testing: synthetic compound or extracted compound from very fine olive oil.

The synthesis is difficult and expensive so very little has been obtained in this way. For extraction, the amount in olive oil is actually quite small and new techniques needed to be developed to get reasonable amounts for testing. As a consequence, even to this day, there are no published human clinical studies that would support a claim of benefits.

There are some animal studies but most of the work uses cell-based assays (e.g. studies reporting that oleocanthal kills cancer cells) which alone are not sufficient to prove clinical efficacy. This is why many are skeptical and why those of us who think it likely that this and related compounds are very promising believe that we need rigorous published clinical data for proof.

Are all Extra Virgin Olive Oils rich in Oleocanthal?

No. There is great variation in oleocanthal content in EVOO depending on many factors including olive plant strain, time of harvesting, and probably many other variables.

Are these natural effects of Oleocanthal transferred to the food when cooking?

Oleocanthal is susceptible to oxidation and other factors that can reduce its concentration in oils. However, it seems that cooking does not necessarily destroy it and therefore EVOO used in cooking should retain many health benefits of uncooked oil.

You are soliciting funds to conduct research for Oleocanthal extraction, not for EVOOs but for the olive leaves or the pomace... why is this?

We believe that in order to conduct necessary clinical studies to prove both safety and health benefits, additional sources of oleocanthal and related compounds (e.g. oleacein) are needed so that enough material is available at a reasonable cost.

In your opinion, what are the steps to follow in order to communicate to consumers and producers that EVOO rich in Oleocanthal is good for our health?

The evidence is quite strong that EVOO is an excellent fat source which provides health benefits. Additionally, there are studies which support the importance of phenolic compounds in EVOO as underlying at least a part of the EVOO benefits. Still to be demonstrated (but in my view likely) is whether there is an important role of oleocanthal itself. One major goal of the Oleocanthal International Society, founded and headed by its President, Dr. Jose Antonio Amerigo, is to support research that we hope will lead to strong evidence for health benefits of oleocanthal and related compounds.

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