For years extra-vir­gin olive oil has been tasted and judged on its abil­ity to pro­duce a tin­gling or burn­ing sen­sa­tion in the back of the throat, the belief being that the more you cough, the bet­ter the qual­ity of the oil. Now sci­en­tists have come up with evi­dence to sup­port this method of tast­ing and to explain why it works.

In a paper pub­lished today in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers revealed that sen­sor mol­e­cules, located in the human throat but not the mouth, attach to a chem­i­cal found in high-end olive oils caus­ing the very notice­able sen­sa­tion.

The idea to study olive oil first occurred to the paper’s co-author Gary Beauchamp around 10 years ago when he was vis­it­ing Italy to attend a meet­ing on mol­e­c­u­lar gas­tron­omy, an emerg­ing field study­ing the physics and chem­istry of cook­ing. A friend brought him some freshly pressed extra-vir­gin olive oil to taste and one sip caused “a very odd sen­sa­tion,” said Beauchamp, direc­tor of the Monell Chemical Senses Center na Filadélfia. â € œTem essa queimadura na garganta, mas nà £ o na boca.â €

The dis­cov­ery not only qual­i­fies an age-old tra­di­tion, but also fur­thers the con­ver­sa­tion around olive oil’s health enhanc­ing attrib­utes. During the study researchers found that when crushed Ibuprofen was swal­lowed and came in con­tact with the throat, it cre­ated the same sen­sa­tion as oleo­can­thal, the cough-induc­ing agent present in olive oil. Scientists now believe that their find­ings could shed fur­ther light on the devel­op­ment of anti-inflam­ma­tory drugs.

But why this sen­sa­tion should be felt in the throat rather than the mouth wasn’t
fully under­stood until researchers turned their atten­tion to a spe­cific fla­vor-sens­ing mol­e­cule named TRPA1, known to react to nox­ios pol­lu­tants and chem­i­cals found in foods such as wasabi, mus­tard, and gar­lic.

Focusing on the TRPA1 mol­e­cule, sci­en­tists began tests to locate its pres­ence within the body. In tak­ing tis­sue biop­sies from a num­ber of vol­un­teers, they found TRPA1 to be mostly absent from mouth and tongue tis­sue, but present in large quan­ti­ties in the upper throat and nose, which was “…a big sur­prise,” Beauchamp said. Although other nox­ious chem­i­cals are sensed by many dif­fer­ent recep­tors, it seems that oleo­can­thal can only be detected by TRPA1 and it is because of this that it is most felt in the throat when high qual­ity extra-vir­gin olive oils are sam­pled.

Beauchamp raised a related ques­tion, not­ing that humans have come to appre­ci­ate the “pain” from oleo­can­thal in olive oil, as if there is an inner knowl­edge that it is advan­ta­geous. “How this hap­pens remains a fas­ci­nat­ing puz­zle,” he said.

TRPA1 also senses the chem­i­cally-unre­lated ibupro­fen, the team found. Beauchamp believes that it will be in under­stand­ing the cor­re­la­tion between the two diverse inflam­ma­tion fight­ers that new leads in the devel­op­ment of bet­ter anti-inflam­ma­tory drugs could be found.


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