You may have heard about the many health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet, a diet that is known to be rich in olive oil and healthy fats. But what exactly is it about olive oil and the Mediterranean diet that make this style of eating so beneficial for healthy aging, longevity, and protection against disease?
New research has shown that a phenolic compound found in extra virgin olive oil called oleocanthal (OC) is responsible for the many health benefits of olive oil. Oleocanthal is found in olive oil at varying concentrations and has been shown to function as a potent antioxidant, control inflammation, and even combat cancer.
Oleocanthal Combats Oxidative Stress
Our everyday exposure to various environmental insults that cause oxidative stress has a huge impact on our health. Oxidative stress occurs when our bodies are exposed to compounds called free radicals. Free radicals can attack biomolecules, causing them to oxidize or otherwise change their structure.
They can also cause biomolecules to react with each other, producing harmful compounds that damage healthy cells. This damages the delicate biology of humans which results in degenerative illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, aging us faster than normal and potentially causing us to die before our time.
However, there are compounds in nature called antioxidants that can fight against these diseases.
Oleocanthal is one such antioxidant found in extra virgin olive oil. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. [1, 2]
While oleocanthal has been studied on and off for some time, it rose to fame when researchers from Hunter College at City University of New York found that oleocanthal rich olive oil can selectively target cancer cells, while preserving healthy cells.
Olive oil itself is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, which may help prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing cholesterol levels in your bloodstream. Olive oil may also protect against diabetes because it contains several antioxidant phenols that improve insulin sensitivity, which helps control blood sugar levels after eating carbohydrates.
When it comes to oleocanthal specifically, it has been shown to have antioxidant properties along with anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects. These are all amazing things for your health.
Oleocanthal Controls Inflammation
Oleocanthal is a pungent compound that may slightly stimulate the back of the throat when you consume it. For most people, swallowing oleocanthal rich olive oil will feel like you caught a few flecks of pepper in the back of your throat. Earlier research discovered that oleocanthal was responsible for this type of pungency in certain types of cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.
This stimulation of the back of the throat is similar to that caused by ibuprofen. Similar yo ibuprofen, oleocanthal has been shown to block a key enzyme linked to inflammation, called COX-1.  Because of this, oleocanthal can function as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent.
Oleocanthal has also been shown in studies to effectively treat inflammation without causing serious side effects, such as stomach upset or nausea (which are common with other prescription drugs)!
As with other phenolic compounds found in extra virgin olive oil, like polyphenols and hydroxytyrosol, it is thought that the general health benefits of oleocanthal are related not only to its capacity as an anti-inflammatory agent but also due to its ability to act as an antioxidant.
The Cancer-Fighting Abilities of Oleocanthal
A recent research study has suggested that oleocanthal can extend lifespan in humans by killing cancer cells.  In particular, the researchers confirmed that oleocanthal shows great promise as an anticancer agent, because it selectively kills cancer cells without harming normal ones.
They also found that oleocanthal could reduce cancer metastasis, which is when malignant cells have already spread throughout the body.
Oleocanthal exerts these effects by disrupting the proteins associated with metastasis (cancer progression) and angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation). In other words, it blocks a protein required for cancer cells to spread throughout your body and form new tumors, while simultaneously making it hard for tumors to get adequate blood flow. That’s an effective one-two punch.
One advantage oleocanthal has over conventional cancer treatments is that it specifically attacks the mitochondria of cancer cells, which are their energy source.  Because it targets the mitochondria of cancer cells and not healthy cells, oleocanthal could be better at selectively killing cancer cells than conventional treatments that pose a greater risk of damaging normal tissue.
Researchers from Hunter College at City University of New York found that another way oleocanthal can selectively target cancer cells is by damaging a part of the cancer cell called a lysosome, which functions as the cell’s recycling center for proteins and other waste products. 
This selective effect has been seen in animal studies and mouse models of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer—when mice were treated with oleocanthal, their survival rates increased by almost 30% compared to those who received no treatment at all.
These results indicate that this substance could be an effective way to treat certain types of cancer without damaging healthy tissues or causing unwanted side effects like nausea or hair loss (which can occur with chemotherapy). In humans, the cancer-killing properties of oleocanthal have been documented to benefit patients with early-stage chronic lymphocytic lymphoma, as well. 
Functional Benefits of Oleocanthal
As mentioned above, oleocanthal has been shown to kill cancer cells with fewer side effects than conventional treatments like chemotherapy. This unique capacity could make oleocanthal a potential alternative or addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, both of which are invasive, expensive treatments with serious side effects that often do not target cancer cells effectively enough for complete remission or recovery.
There are several functional benefits of oleocanthal as well, which include that oleocanthal:
- Is a natural food derivative
- Is safe for you (the host) and your healthy, non-cancerous cells
- Can be consumed at home without a prescription
- Tastes good – Oleocanthal rich olive oil can be drizzled on salads, eggs, veggies, and other foods
- Is relatively inexpensive (most bottles of oleocanthal rich olive oil range in price from $35 to 100)
Put simply, oleocanthal appears to be effective at both cancer prevention and reversal. Thus, for people who are diagnosed with cancer, there may be benefits to adding oleocanthal rich olive oil to your diet. With this said, you should always discuss any changes to your diet and lifestyle with your doctor, because your individual situation could be unique.
Olive Oil Brands that are Rich in Oleocanthal
Having share the compelling benefits of oleocanthal rich olive oil, not all olive oils are created equal.
To reap the maximum benefit of oleocanthal, it is essential to look for a brand which emphasizes the polyphenol content of its product and is especially rich in oleocanthal.
Here are five suggestions for oleocanthal rich olive oil products that you can explore:
- Oh! Polyphenol Rich Limited Edition Extra Virgin Olive Oil, OlivefromtheRaw.com – $26
- OleoTrue Extra Virgin Olive Oil, oleatrue.com, $30 – $57+
- Sole che Sorge, OlivefromtheRaw.com – $45
- HYPERELEON Extra Virgin Olive Oil, hypereleon.com, $48 – $78+
- ATSAS Olive Oil, Amazon.com, $45 – $89
For what it is worth, the first olive oil brand listed above is the one that I buy and none of those are referral links. They are simply brands that I like and trust.
How Much Oleocanthal Rich Olive Oil to Eat per Day?
After learning about the health benefits of oleocanthal, a common question is, how much oleocanthal rich olive oil should you try to eat per day?
Personally, I try to eat 2-3 tablespoons of oleocanthal rich olive oil a day, typically by drizzling it on food. My favorite way to eat oleocanthal rich olive oil is to mix it with balsamic vinegar and a few Italian herbs to create a salad dressing.
However, I also like to:
- Drizzle it on vegetables, like sautéed spinach, roasted broccoli, or roasted potatoes
- Mix it into smoothies
- Pour some on my morning eggs
- Dip (gluten-free) bread or toast into it
- Use it as a cooking oil when cooking at low heats
The smoke point of most Extra Virgin Olive Oil is 410°F, so it’s safe to use in most cooking applications. With that said, given that I often end up be paying $25 or more per bottle (and sometimes as much as $100 for premium brands), I typically use it in its pure and unaltered state.
The other reason for this is that most of the research on oleocanthal was conducted using unheated extra virgin olive oil, so I wouldn’t recommend introducing in unneeded scientific variables.
Also, when I’m in a rush or being particularly practical about my health, I simply pour a spoonful of oleocanthal rich olive oil into a spoon and swallow it.
Cancer Prevention with Oleocanthal Rich Olive Oil
To summarize, oleocanthal is a natural component of extra virgin olive oil, found in varying amounts in different brands of oil. This phenolic compound has been demonstrated to function as a potent antioxidant in combating oxidative stress, controlling free radical production and promoting healthy aging.
In addition, there is evidence that oleocanthal can act as an anti-inflammatory agent to provide pain relief and treat inflammation.
Numerous research studies have been published recording the ability of oleocanthal to treat cancer in both humans and mice. There is also a mounting body of evidence to suggest that oleocanthal rich olive oil can assist in warding off other diseases, particularly neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s.
To sum it up, one of the easiest ways to extend your healthspan and reduce your risk of disease may be to add a bit of high-quality olive oil to your diet that is rich in oleocanthal.
What questions do you have about oleocanthal rich olive oil and are you consuming it? Share your experience in comments below.
- Pang, Kok Lun, and Kok Yong Chin. “The Biological Activities of Oleocanthal from a Molecular Perspective.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 5, Nutrients, May 2018, doi:10.3390/NU10050570.
- Parkinson, Lisa, and Russell Keast. “Oleocanthal, a Phenolic Derived from Virgin Olive Oil: A Review of the Beneficial Effects on Inflammatory Disease.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 15, no. 7, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), July 2014, p. 12323, doi:10.3390/IJMS150712323.
- Beauchamp, Gary K., et al. “Phytochemistry: Ibuprofen-like Activity in Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.” Nature, vol. 437, no. 7055, Nature, Sept. 2005, pp. 45–46, doi:10.1038/437045A.
- Pei, Tiemin, et al. “(−)-Oleocanthal Inhibits Growth and Metastasis by Blocking Activation of STAT3 in Human Hepatocellular Carcinoma.” Oncotarget, vol. 7, no. 28, Impact Journals, LLC, July 2016, p. 43475, doi:10.18632/ONCOTARGET.9782.
- Cusimano, Antonella, et al. “Oleocanthal Exerts Antitumor Effects on Human Liver and Colon Cancer Cells through ROS Generation.” International Journal of Oncology, vol. 51, no. 2, Int J Oncol, Aug. 2017, pp. 533–44, doi:10.3892/IJO.2017.4049.
- Goren, Limor, et al. “(-)-Oleocanthal and (-)-Oleocanthal-Rich Olive Oils Induce Lysosomal Membrane Permeabilization in Cancer Cells.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 8, Public Library of Science, Aug. 2019, doi:10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0216024.
- Rojas Gil, Andrea Paola, et al. “The Effect of Dietary Intervention With High-Oleocanthal and Oleacein Olive Oil in Patients With Early-Stage Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: A Pilot Randomized Trial.” Frontiers in Oncology, vol. 11, Frontiers Media S.A., Jan. 2022, p. 5746, doi:10.3389/FONC.2021.810249/BIBTEX.