The world would be a much less savory place without olives. The very word conjures images of cocktails and canapes – all the good things in life. Is it possible that such a delicious tidbit could also be healthy?
The answer is a resounding YES!
Although we think of them as vegetables, olives are, botanically speaking, the fruits of the Olea europea tree. Once established, a mature olive tree can live for hundreds of years. That’s a lot of oil.
Poets speak of “bitter olives” which is certainly true for raw ones plucked from the branch. The olives we eat have been cured, a process that makes them palatable. The exact curing process varies but is based on the type of olive, area it comes from, and the targeted taste, texture and color.
Olives are harvested both before and after maturation, depending on what kind they are. Also, the color of an olive doesn’t necessarily correspond to its ripeness – unlike, say, a tomato which turns from green to red. However, many olives transition from green to black as they ripen.
Most Americans are familiar with the black olives that come in cans, sized as Small, Medium or Large. But you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Greek-style black olives, Spanish-style green olives, and Kalamata-style olives. Some grocers stock glass jars that mix different types. Salad bars can be a great place to sample olives you may never have encountered in a restaurant salad or delivery pizza.
California olives, for the most part, are picked green and unripened, cured in lye, and exposed to air to trigger oxidation and convert the outer color to black.
Other forms of curing include using water or brine.
No matter what kind or how they are cured, all olives are amazingly healthy. Some foodies call them the “best” or “perfect” food. You be the judge.
A single green olive, be it pickled, canned or bottled, weighs about 2 grams and breaks down into these nutritional components:
- Calories – 3.6
- Total Fat – 0.4g (gram) which is 1% Daily Value (DV)
- Total Carbohydrate – 0.1g which is all Dietary Fiber
- Vitamin A – 9.8 IU (international unit)
- Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol) – 0.1 mg (milligram)
- Folate – 0.1mcg (microgram)
- Choline – 0.4mg
- Calcium – 1.3mg
- Magnesium – 0.3 mg
- Phosphorus – 0.1 mg
- Potassium – 1.0mg
- Sodium – 38.9mg
As you can see, olives are mostly fat (88%) with some carby fiber (10%) and a little protein (2%).
The fat in olives what experts call “heart-healthy,” with only 0.1 g (grams) of unhealthy saturated fat. The remaining fats are all deemed cardio-friendly and have been linked to decreased inflammation and a reduced risk of heart disease:
- Monounsaturated Fat – 0.3g
- Total Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids – 2.3mg
- Total Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids – 30.4mg
Remember, though, that we are talking about one little olive here. At 20% fat content, whole olives are much “leaner” than olive oil which is made up of 100% fat. Olive oil has no fiber, either, as a whole olive does.
The vitamins in olives provide powerful antioxidants to bolster the immune system and combat diseases. Heart disease and certain types of cancer have been linked to free radicals in the body which are neutralized by antioxidants we consume.
One consideration is how much sodium (salt) has been added during the curing process. Check the label on a packaged product before you buy, especially if you are on a restricted regime.
Hydroxytyrosol is a phytonutrient in olives associated with warding off cancer and researchers are studying its usefulness to treat bone loss. For a long time, the Mediterranean Diet, which features olives and olive oil, has been linked with a lowered risk of osteoporosis (bone loss disease where the bones become weak and brittle, subject to breaking).
Other positive health benefits from adding a few olives to your daily diet include:
- Polyphenols in olives are a natural memory aid.
- Vitamin E smooths and tones the skin – from within – and promotes tissue healing.
- The fiber in whole olives expands in your gut and makes you feel full so you don’t want to eat more but feel satisfied.
- Oleocanthal is an anti-inflammatory agent that reduces pain and acts much like a natural Ibuprofen.
- Olives eliminate excess cholesterol in the blood.
- Olives control blood pressure.
- Olives help prevent blood clots that could lead to a myocardial infarction or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
- Olives enhance fertility and the reproductive system.
Health benefits aside, olives are downright delicious. Add them to salads, omelets, appetizers, and entres and enjoy their exciting savory goodness.