If you go into any supermarket or deli you’ll find a massive selection of olives to choose from.
Whether it’s oil-cured, water-cured, brine-cured, lye-cured, pitted, unpitted, stuffed or unstuffed, black or green, manzanilla, kalamata, nicoise, liguria, lugano, or sevillano.
Whew… how could you EVER choose?
And, are they all the same nutritionally speaking?
We’ve talked about healthy and unhealthy oils recently, and olive oil is well known to be a healthy option.
But, how do olives compare to olive oil in terms of health benefits?
Well, this is the topic I want to discuss with you today.
Fruit or Vegetable?
Interestingly, olives are technically classified as a fruit, although we commonly think of them as a vegetable, probably because of their savory flavor, and also how we use them in salads, main courses, or as a snack.
From a botanical standpoint, they belong to a group of fruits called drupes.
These are fruits that have a pit or stone inside. Other well known drupes include mango, cherry, peach, plum, apricot and nectarine.
When the olives are freshly picked they often have a bitter flavor, as a result of their phytonutrient content, which incidentally protects against certain diseases.
This is, however, why they need to be cured to remove this bitter taste, and also to soften them.
The three basic types of curing used with olives are:
This involves submerging the olives in water for a few weeks or longer. Water-cured olives usually remain slightly bitter.
This is where the olives are submerged in a concentrated salt solution. Brine-curing can take many months, and the olives often start to ferment during the process.
With lye-curing the olives are submerged in a strong alkali solution, containing either sodium hydroxide, or potassium hydroxide.
Many olives are then flavoured by soaking in a marinade. These flavourings include herbs, spices, olive oil, chili, lemon, wine, vinegar, and juniper berries.
Or, they are pitted and stuffed with foods like feta cheese, blue cheese, pimento, garlic cloves, almonds, and anchovies.
The amount of sodium within the olive depends on the curing process used.
The exact amount can be very difficult to work out, particularly if you get your olives at the deli counter. But, generally speaking, black olives have less sodium than green olives.
What Type of Olives Are Healthier?
Green olives, picked before they ripen, usually have higher amounts of polyphenols, whereas black olives, allowed to ripen on the tree, generally have a higher oil content.
In terms of nutrients, all olives are a good sources of fiber, iron, copper, and vitamin E.
Both olives and olive oil are considered healthy, because of their monounsaturated fat (MUFAs) content.
We know that MUFAs are good for us, because studies tell us those cultures having diets rich in this type of fat, have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and obesity, even though their total fat intake is high. You see, I told you fat wasn’t the enemy! :)
There are quite a few interesting differences between olives and their oil;
- Olive oil is all fat, with a serving (1 tablespoon) containing 120 calories. A serving (about 10 medium) of whole olives has around 40 calories.
- The olives usually contain a lot of sodium as a result of pickling. Olive oil doesn’t have this.
- Polyphenols are phytonutrients. These are largely present in extra virgin olive oil, but the curing process removes much of the polyphenols in olives.
- Whole olives contain fiber. Olive oil does not.
- If your olives have been cured using natural fermentation, they will be a source of beneficial bacteria. Olive oil does not contain this bacteria.
So, as you can see, olives and olive oil have their own unique health benefits, and you can basically use both in your diet without fear that you are doing something unhealthy.
Healthy Olive Recipes
Here are some quick meal and snack ideas:
Olive tapenade is delicious. Use it as a dip, or topping for fish and poultry, or to stuff mushrooms, tomatoes or peppers.
You can make your own using a food processor, by whizzing pitted olives, olive oil, garlic, and your favorite seasonings.
Make a marinade for your olives using olive oil, lemon zest, garlic and rosemary. I love this recipe from Eating Well.
Add chopped olives to a chicken or tuna salad.
Simply serve them as they are along with vegetable crudités, as a snack or meal appetizer.
I kid you not with this heading!
Apparently there is such as thing as a right and a wrong way to eat olives.
So, I thought it best to give you the heads up on this… you never know when it might be useful :)
- When at a party (not seated at a dinner table), you should place small olives in your mouth whole. The pit should be placed in the palm of your hand, which you have cupped, and then closed. The pit can then be removed from the hand, and placed on a small dining plate.
- Larger olives are eaten by taking small bites while holding the olive between two fingers (thumb and forefinger). The olive pit is then placed on a small dining plate.
- However, if you are seated at a dinner table, you are expected to use your fork when picking up the olive. You then place the pit on your fork, and put it on the border of your plate.
So, there you have it, the health benefits of olives, some ways to enjoy them, and proper olive-eating etiquette.
What can I say… I really do try to prepare you for every eventuality! ;)
Do you eat olives? What’s you favorite way to enjoy them?