by Harold McGee
June 6, 2007
For a newcomer to the world of olive oil connoisseurship, the sound effects from the 20 or so tasters at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif., were startling. The low murmurs of discussion were punctuated by loud, sharp slurps, and loud, sharp coughs. Slurps and coughs, hour after hour. On the second day I made two notes to myself: reread “The Magic Mountain”; check in with Dr. Beauchamp.
I was observing the annual Los Angeles international extra virgin olive oil competition, where nearly 400 oils from 15 countries were evaluated by expert judges last month. Through the three days of competition I learned what a wonderful variety of aromas you can discover in olive oils when you sip and slurp. (Vigorous slurping aerates the viscous oil and helps release its flavors.)
There were many different green notes pressed from the green fruit: of 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.
Many of these aromas were delicate and elusive; they would be swamped by most of the foods that we anoint with olive oil. Since the competition, I’ve been starting supper with aperitif-like sips of straight oil, just to enjoy it for itself.
I also learned a lot about the not-so-delicate side of olive oil: the bitterness, the drying astringency and especially that peppery pungency that hits the back of the throat and provokes a cough. Some oils were so strong that they seemed more medicinal than delicious. But the Italian and Spanish judges consistently rated the most peppery, throat-catching oils at the top, nodding in admiration even as they gasped for breath.
The sensations of bitterness, astringency and pungency are caused by members of the phenolic family of chemicals. Phenols also have antioxidant properties and so help to protect the oil from going rancid. Whenever you taste an especially peppery oil, it’s an indication that the oil is rich in olive extracts and relatively fresh.
Pondering the line between delicious and medicinal reminded me that some years ago a very peppery oil had inspired a brilliant biomedical hunch. That’s why I made a note to call Dr. Gary Beauchamp, the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia: to get an update on the chemistry of the olive oil cough.
At the 1999 international workshop on molecular and physical gastronomy, in the mist-shrouded mountain town of Erice, Sicily, the physicists Ugo and Beatrice Palma brought along oil freshly pressed from their own trees. Dr. Beauchamp tasted the oil and felt his throat burn, as did I and all the other attendees. But he was the only one who immediately thought of ibuprofen.
Dr. Beauchamp happened to be an ibuprofen connoisseur. He and a Monell colleague, Dr. Paul Breslin, had been trying to help a manufacturer replace acetaminophen with ibuprofen in its liquid cold and flu medicine. The medicine tasted fine until it was swallowed. Consumer panels described the unpleasant sensation as bitterness, but Dr. Beauchamp recognized it as an irritation akin to the pungency of black pepper and chilies, strangely localized to the back of the throat. And he recognized it again in Sicily.
“The moment I felt that burn from Ugo and Beatrice’s oil, I saw the whole picture in my head,” Dr. Beauchamp recalled last week. “There’s a natural analogue of ibuprofen in olive oil, and it could have anti-inflammatory properties, too.”
He, Dr. Breslin and several collaborators confirmed that the pungent substance in olive oil is a phenolic chemical, which they named oleocanthal. And they showed that oleocanthal is even more effective than ibuprofen at inhibiting enzymes in the body that create inflammation. “It took five years of spare-time unfunded research to prove it, but that was some of the best fun I’ve had doing science,” he said.
In their 2005 report to the journal Nature, the team noted that anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen appear to have long-term health benefits, including reduction in the risk of some forms of heart disease and cancer. They suggested that the oleocanthal in pungent olive oils might be one of the things that make traditional Mediterranean diets so healthful.
The scientists are engaged in further oleocanthal research that may identify new sensory receptors in the throat. It may even spin off new medications that are more potent and more palatable than ibuprofen.
In the meantime, the medalists of the 2007 Los Angeles County competition will be announced on June 16. If you like olive oil, shop for a couple of them and give the sip-and-slurp method a try. And be ready to enjoy a good healthy cough.