Could This Mediterranean Staple Make You Live Longer?

are olives healthy

hummanna

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.

Curing Process

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:

1. Water-curing

This involves submerging the olives in water for a few weeks or longer. Water-cured olives usually remain slightly bitter.

2. Brine-curing

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.

3. Lye-curing

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.

Salt Content

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:

Tapenade
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.

Marinate
Make a marinade for your olives using olive oil, lemon zest, garlic and rosemary. I love this recipe from Eating Well.

Salads
Add chopped olives to a chicken or tuna salad.

As is
Simply serve them as they are along with vegetable crudités, as a snack or meal appetizer.

Olive-Eating Etiquette

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?

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy in NZ November 22, 2012 at 3:16 am

I eat olives occasionally – I wax/wane on them.

Earlier this year the suburb my niece lives in has dozens of olive trees planted on the verges outside homes, and I helped pick many of them on 2 weekends. She then puts them in a brine solution – I guess by now she is nibbling at them. I think she picked a couple of kilos over a variety of w/ends…They aren’t very big but the ones I have eaten over the years she has been doing this are quite tasty…

I’m never sure on portion sizes that one is supposed to have to get the benefits of whatever small food item to eat and these seem no different. Would I need to eat 10 as you suggest or more like 100grms? Or doesn’t matter…

Reply

Melanie December 6, 2012 at 11:59 am

I’d say a serving is roughly 1/4 cup, Cathy. I’m not sure how many that would be exactly in terms of your smaller sized olives. I think 100g would maybe be too many. Perhaps weigh out a 1/4 cup and see what weight that is.

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Krissie December 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Thanks for this very informative article about olives. I love both green and black olives anytime – I’m guilty of eating them right out of the jar – in the privacy of my own home of course.

I’ll be sure to follow the etiquette rules you mentioned in your post when eating them in public, though!

Keep up the good work!

Krissie

Reply

Melanie December 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm

lol Krissie, yes, who knew there were such rules of etiquette to be followed? :D

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Samson Bernard December 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I love Olives so this article was very helpful. Thank you very much.

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George January 10, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Very informative article!

An interesting study done in France wanted to see if olive oil lowered stroke risk and involved over 7,000 test subjects who consumed olive oil on a regular bases. After tracking these subjects for about 5 years they found olive oil lowered stroke risk by 41%.

The healthy fat you were referring is called oleic acid and is an omega-9 fatty acid. I feel like everyone has heard of omega-3 but sadly poor omega-9 doesn’t get much attention :(

Reply

Melanie February 7, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Thanks George for your comments. That’s a topic for another article :)

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Azra May 2, 2013 at 4:04 am

thanx for such amazing info regarding olives.I just wanted to know that are black olives helpful to lessen triglycerides level, high blood pressure and uric acid level. how many black olives can be eaten everyday for a balanced nutrition.

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Adion May 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

Great article! It answered allmost all my questions about olives. In my search I found some also interesting information about the long journey of olives: “While we might know of olives from Italian, Greek and Mediterranean foods and recipes, the first trace of the fruit in history was seen in Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. It was only much later when olives were bought to southern Italy by the Romans, where the technique of lye-drying was devised for the first time. ”

So the olives might be actually from the near east where they originate.

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