Benefits of Olive Oil for Arthritis

Extra virgin olive oil’s anti-inflammatory properties help fight arthritis.

By Linda Rath | Updated Feb. 24, 2023

While tasting extra-virgin olive oils in Sicily nearly two decades ago, Gary Beauchamp, now emeritus 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 liquid forms of ibuprofen and aspirin during earlier research. Subsequently, studies revealed that a compound in the oil called oleocanthal prevents production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, much as ibuprofen does. 

According to Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University, the intensity of the “throaty bite” in extra-virgin olive oil is related to the amount of oleocanthal it contains. He explains that extra-virgin olive oils from Tuscany or other regions that have the same variety of olives have the highest oleocanthal level.

Many aficionados consider them among the finest olive oils in the world. Extra-virgin olive oil, often shorthanded to EVOO, is at the top of the olive oil hierarchy. It’s made from a single cold pressing of the olives, without heat or chemicals, to retain its flavor and nutritional value. Virgin olive oil is the second pressing. “Pure” or “light” olive oils, extracted using heat and solvents, are less expensive and poorer in quality.

What Can’t EVOO Do?

Oleocanthal isn’t the only polyphenol in olive oil; at last count, there were about 30 of these natural compounds. They’re found only in plants and some are unique to EVOO. All are known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-allergy and anti-cancer effects. Hundreds of studies over several decades have found that EVOO can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, age-related cognitive decline, type 2 diabetes and cancer. 

EVOO and Arthritis

Extra virgin olive oil has also been studied for its protective benefits in inflammatory autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Human, animal and lab experiments have shown that the polyphenols in EVOO effectively combat inflammation and improve arthritis symptoms in joints and throughout the body. Some experts think EVOO is the main reason the Mediterranean diet helps prevent a host of chronic diseases, though no one has yet determined how much someone must consume to be effective. In Mediterranean countries, the average person eats about 20 liters or roughly five gallons of EVOO a year; in the U.S., despite EVOO’s growing popularity, it’s a fraction of a gallon.

Authenticity Alert

More than a decade ago, researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested eight of the most common supermarket EVOOs in the U.S. and found 70% of imported brands “failed to meet sensory [and other] standards” that would qualify them as EVOO. California and Australian EVOOs, on the other hand, met standards and lived up to their claims. 

Myth Busting

The age of disinformation hasn’t spared olive oil. Common misconceptions include:
  • It can’t be used for cooking or frying because it has a low smoke point. Olive oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees, well above what’s needed even for deep frying. 
  • It will overwhelm other flavors. Chefs generally disagree, arguing that good EVOO will only enhance the complexity of whatever it’s paired with. 
  • It isn’t perishable. Although olive oil shouldn’t be refrigerated, it starts to go rancid when exposed to light and air. It should be stored in dark or UV-coated glass containers, away from heat and light. Buy small amounts you can use within a month or two of opening.

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