You’ve heard it before: the Mediterranean diet is good for you! The health benefits of eating fresh produce and lean meat drizzled in extra virgin olive oil have been loudly touted. But if you’re not already on board, compelling new research may just have you knocking back shots of olive oil in your kitchen.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a staple in the Mediterranean diet. “It’s used as a dressing,” says Paul Breslin, a professor at the Rutgers University Department of Nutritional Sciences. “It’s on fish and pizza. They’re getting it all the time, three meals a day.” Have you ever noticed that really good olive oil leaves a lingering tingle on the back of your throat? Breslin did. He and his team, Onica LeGendre and David Foster, helped identify the compound responsible for this sensation, and named it “oleocanthal.”
There’s only one other thing known to produce a similar sting: phenylpropanoic acids, more commonly known as over-the-counter drugs like Ibuprofen and Advil. When taken regularly, these anti-inflammatory drugs have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and dementia—all the things a Mediterranean diet has also been linked to.
Breslin wondered: Is the throat-tingling compound oleocanthal EVOO’s secret weapon?
He and his team decided to test the compound on three different cancer cells: breast, pancreas, and prostate. The result? All of the cancer cells died “as rapidly as 30 minutes after treatment.” The kicker? All the healthy cells remained alive and well. “Finding something that kills cancer cells but doesn’t kill healthy cells isn’t seen every day,” Breslin says. Indeed, chemotherapy drugs have such harsh side effects because they can’t distinguish between the two, instead killing everything in their path.
What’s different about oleocanthal? To borrow a metaphor from Breslin, each cell is like a house. The house has a trash can, called the lysosome, that collects all the household’s toxic waste. “Cancer cells are very metabolically active,” he says. “As a consequence of that, unlike your home which has a trash can outside it, there’s more like a dumpster next to it. It generates much more waste. And it turns out that the big, overactive lysosomes are fragile.” This is where oleocanthal comes in, causing the fragile lysosomal membranes to rupture and leak toxic waste throughout the cancer cell, and they die. Essentially, oleocanthal makes cancer cells self-destruct.
These studies were conducted in a Petri dish in a lab setting, so the next step is to test on living creatures and a variety of other types of cancer. And oleocanthal is still a bit of a mystery. “What’s the toxicology of it?” Breslin asks. “At what level is it ok to put it into a pill? We need to know it’s safe, so there’s lots and lots of work to be done.”
In the meantime, if you want to work some oleocanthal into your diet, look for olive oil from Spain, Greece, Turkey, or Italy. “You’ll know it when you have it,” Breslin says. “You wanna take it straight up, take a swig, and if it stings, it’s there.”