Essential Oils

Harold McGee writes of olive oil and its curious kinship to Advil in “Extra Virgin Anti-Inflammatories,” which begins with a vignette from the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition:

The low murmurs of discussion were punctuated by loud, sharp slurps, and loud, sharp coughs. Slurps and coughs, hour after hour.

As McGee goes on to relate in dreamy detail, the nearly 400 oils at the event contained many flavor notes:

[O]f grass, celery, raw and cooked artichoke, green tea, seaweed. An oil from the Spanish picual variety smelled startlingly of tomato leaf, then green herbs: sage and rosemary and basil and mint and eucalyptus. From riper olives there were fruity and nutty aromas: citrus and almond and even banana.

But most startling was a certain peppery bite, a cough-producing astringency highly prized by the Italian and Spanish judges. As McGee notes, it was this very quality that led to an important finding some years back.

Dr. Gary Beauchamp, the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, happened to be at a scientific workshop in Sicily with some Italian doctors who brought some home-pressed olive oil. When he tasted the oil, he recognized the throat burn: It was remarkably similar to a certain throat-tweaking “bitterness” that some consumers complained about after trying a medicine containing ibuprofen.

It took five years of what Beauchamp called “spare-time” research, but he and some other researchers eventually proved that the pungent substance in olive oil (which they named oleocanthal), is a natural relative of ibuprofen, and even more effective than its pharmaceutical cousin at reducing inflammation. And since inflammation’s been linked to everything from cancer to diabetes to heart disease, that’s darned good justification for laying into the stuff. Waiter! Another puddle of oil, if you please.

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