Olive Oil vs. Inflammation

| Oct 26, 2015

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Extra Virgin Olive Oil: A Natural Anti-Inflammatory?

You know all about the important role healthful fats like extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) play in your diet. The monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in EVOO keep you feeling full longer, help fuel muscle activity, and can also reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

But did you know that EVOO packs an even bigger therapeutic punch?

Take it from us—pure, authentic EVOO is an optimal food. Not only can it do all of the above, it can also help relieve joint pain and muscle aches, whether from exercise or arthritis. EVOO contains more than 30 bioactive powerhouses called phenols, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The best-known of these is oleocanthal, which has effects almost identical to very low-dose ibuprofen. (But better, because EVOO tastes fantastic and doesn’t take a toll on your liver.)

Aches and pains may cramp your style, but inflammation also plays a major role in more serious problems. Chronic inflammation underlies many medical conditions—cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, to name a few.

The oleocanthal in EVOO has been shown to improve inflammatory markers in each of these conditions. (In scientific terms, a “marker” is a specific measurement associated with a disease.) Oleocanthal also helps reduce the inflammation associated with autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks and damages the body’s own tissues. (For example, rheumatoid arthritis.)

In Mediterranean countries, with their diets rich in EVOO, vegetables, fruit, and fish, people have lower rates of chronic inflammatory disease. Researchers believe that a daily dose of EVOO, over the long term, helps protect against inflammatory conditions.

Does Your EVOO Make You Cough?

This one does, and that’s a sign it’s working! The “canth” part of oleocanthal means “sting.” The “sting” is a prickly sensation in the back of the throat. Some people describe it as “peppery.” You’ll feel it—and you might even cough a little—when sampling a high-phenolic EVOO straight from a tasting glass or a spoon. Mediterranean olive-oil lovers describe their favorite olive oils as “one-cough” or “two-cough” oils.

But EVOO’s health-promoting powers have a limited shelf life. In fact, recent studies show that oleocanthal and the other phenols in EVOO lose about 40% of their potency after only 6 months. And most olive oil sold in supermarkets is already 6 to 9 months old by the time it reaches the US. (Not to mention, much of what is on supermarket shelves may be adulterated with soy or other vegetable oil—or it may even be fake. Stay tuned tomorrow for more information on the “Great Olive Oil Scandal.”)

So what’s a health-conscious person to do?

We take our cues from medical professionals like Dr. Mary Flynn at UC Davis, who recommends sourcing oils from the most recent global harvest in order to obtain the freshest, highest-phenolic EVOO. That’s the only way for you to reap its multiple health benefits. Here is our go-to source for independently lab-certified EVOO, imported quarterly from the world’s latest harvest.

So, whether you’re whipping up a smoothie or frying a frittata, pour on the EVOO! Use authentic EVOO in stir-fries and pan-sears (the idea that you shouldn’t fry with olive oil has been enthusiastically abandoned). Add flavor and disease prevention to your favorite dishes! A generous splash of EVOO will not only intensify the flavor and nutritional content of your meals, it may also help guard you against inflammatory diseases.


Baiano A, Gambacorta G, Terracone C, Previtali MA, Lamacchia C, La Notte E. Changes in phenolic content and antioxidant activity of Italian extra-virgin olive oils during storage. J Food Sci. 2007;74(2):177–183.

Barros CR, Cezaretto A, Curti MLR, et al. Realistic changes in monounsaturated fatty acids and soluble fibers are able to improve glucose metabolism. Diab Metab Syndr. 2014;6(136):1–8.

Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry, 5th ed. New York: WH Freeman, 2002.

Covas MI, Nyyssönen K, Poulsen HE, at al. The effect of polyphenols in olive oil on heart disease risk factors: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:333–341.

Flynn M, Wang S. Olive oil as medicine: the effect on blood lipids and lipoproteins. UC Davis Olive Center Report. March 2015.

Frankel DM, Mailer RJ, Shoemaker CF, Wang SC, Flynn JD. Tests indicate that imported “extra virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards. UC Davis Olive Center Report. July 2010.

Handschin C, Spiegelman BM. The role of exercise and PGC1-alpha in inflammation and chronic disease. Nature. 2008;454(7203):463-469.

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