While tasting extra-virgin olive oils in Sicily, Gary Beauchamp, PhD, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, noticed a ticklish, peppery sensation in the back of his throat. It was nearly identical to the “sting” he’d felt when swallowing a liquid form of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, during previous sensory studies. Beauchamp detected a connection between olive oil and inflammation.

Further studies revealed that a compound in the oil, called oleocanthal, prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes – the same way NSAIDs work.

“By inhibiting these enzymes, inflammation and the increase in pain sensitivity associated with them is dampened,” says Paul Breslin, PhD, co-author of the study. Researchers found the intensity of the “throaty bite” in an oil is directly related to the amount of oleocanthal it contains. “Stronger-flavored oils from Tuscany or other regions that use the same olive varietal, have the highest oleocanthal levels,” says Breslin.

The olive oil inflammation study’s researchers say that 50 milliliters (ml), which is about 3-1/2 Tbsp., is equal to a 200-mg tablet of ibuprofen. Breslin points out that amount of oil has more than 400 calories – a lot if you add this healthy fat without giving up others. To avoid excess calories, use extra-virgin olive oil in lieu of other fats, such as butter.