The World's Healthiest Foods
Olives

Sour to bitter, piquant to sweet, the tangy taste of olives are harvested in September but available year round to make a zesty addition to salads, meat and poultry dishes and, of course, pizza.

Olives cannot be eaten right off of the tree; they require special processing to reduce their intrinsic bitterness. These processing methods vary with the olive variety, region where they are cultivated and the desired taste, texture and color. Some olives are picked green and unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree to a black color. Yet, not all of the black olives available begin with a black color. Some processing methods expose unripe greens olives to the air, and the subsequent oxidation turns them a dark color. In addition to the original color of the olive, the color is affected by fermentation and/or curing in oil, water, brine or salt.

 


Health Benefits

Olives are a very good source of monounsaturated fats and a good source of vitamin E. Because monounsaturated fats are less easily damaged than polyunsaturated fats, it's good to have some in our cells' outer membranes and other cell structures that contain fats, such as the membranes that surround the cell's DNA and each of its energy-producing mitochondria. The stability of monounsaturated fats translates into a protective effect on the cell that, especially when combined with the antioxidant protection offered by vitamin E, can lower the risk of damage and inflammation. In addition to vitamin E, olives contain a variety of beneficial active phytonutrient compounds including polyphenols and flavonoids, that also appear to have significant anti-inflammatory properties.

Cellular Protection Against Free Radicals

Vitamin E is the body's primary fat-soluble antioxidant. It goes after and directly neutralizes free radicals in all the fat-rich areas of the body. In combination, stable monounsaturated fats and vitamin E add a significant safety factor to cellular processes like energy production, a process that generates free radicals even when things are running smoothly.

When cellular processes such as mitochondrial energy production are not well protected, the free radicals produced can interact with and damage any nearby molecules--a process called oxidation. When a cell's mitochondria become damaged, the cell cannot produce enough energy to supply its needs and dies. If a cell's DNA becomes damaged, the cell may mutate and become cancerous.

Protection From Cancer & Heart Disease

Free radical damage can lead to numerous ailments. For example, when free radicals cause the oxidation of cholesterol, the oxidized cholesterol damages blood vessels and builds up in arteries, and can eventually lead to heart attack or stroke. So, by preventing the oxidation of cholesterol, the nutrients in olives help to prevent heart disease.

If free radicals damage the cellular DNA in colon cells, the cells can mutate into cancer cells. By neutralizing free radicals, the nutrients in olives help prevent colon cancer. A higher intake of both vitamin E and the monounsaturated fats in olives is actually associated with lower rates of colon cancer.

Beneficial Anti-Inflammatory Effects

The anti-inflammatory actions of the monounsaturated fats, vitamin E and polyphenols in olives may also help reduce the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis, three conditions where most of the damage is caused by high levels of free radicals. The vitamin E in olives may even help to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of hot flashes in women going through menopause.

Description

Olives are fruits of the tree known as Olea europaea. "Olea" is the Latin word for "oil," reflecting the olive’s very high fat content (15-35%) of which 75% is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels. "Europaea" reminds us that olives are native to the Mediterranean region of Europe.

Olives cannot be eaten right off of the tree; they require special processing to reduce their intrinsic bitterness, caused by the glycoside oleuropein, which is concentrated in their skin. These processing methods vary with the olive variety, cultivation region, and the desired taste, texture and color to be created.

Some olives are picked green and unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree to a black color. Yet, not all of the black olives available begin with a black color. Some processing methods expose unripe greens olives to the air, and the subsequent oxidation turns them a dark color.

In addition to the original color of the olive determining its finished characteristics, the color is affected by a variety of processing methods that olives undergo including fermentation and/or curing in oil, water, brine or salt. These methods may not only cause the olives to turn black, purple, brown, red, or yellow, but they also affect the skin texture, causing it to be smooth and shiny or wrinkled.

Some of the many available delicious varieties of olives include Moroccan oil-cured, Kalamata, Nicoise, Picholine and Manzanilla. In addition to varying in size and appearance, the flavor of olives spans the range from sour to smoky to bitter to acidic. In addition to whole olives, you can often find them pitted.

Olive oil is available in a variety of grades that reflects the degree to which it has been processed. Extra-virgin is the initial unrefined oil from the first pressing. Virgin olive oil refers to all oil produced from the first pressing, while pure olive oil usually means a lower-quality oil produced from subsequent pressings. Chemically, the difference bewtween an extra virgin oil and a virgin oil involves the amount of free oleic acid. "Virgin" can contain up to 4% free oleic acid, while "extra virgin" can contain only 1% of free oleic acid.

History

Olives, one of the oldest foods known, are thought to have originated in Crete between five and seven thousand years ago. Their use quickly spread throughout Egypt, Greece, Palestine and Asia Minor.

Olives are mentioned in the Bible, depicted in ancient Egyptian art, and played an important role in Greek mythology. Since ancient times, the olive tree has provided food, fuel, timber and medicine for many civilizations. It has also been regarded as a symbol of peace and wisdom. Olive oil has been consumed since 3000 BC.

Olives were brought to America by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers during the 15th and 16th century. They were introduced into California by the Franciscan missionaries in the late 18th century. Today, much of the commercial cultivation of olives occurs in Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

How to Select and Store

How to Enjoy

Tips for Preparing Olives:

To pit olives, press them with the flat side of a broad bladed knife. This will help break the flesh so that you can easily remove the pit with your fingers or the knife. The brine in which olives are packed can be used as a replacement for salted water in recipes.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Olive tapenade is a delicious and easy-to-make spread that you can use as a dip, sandwich spread, or topping for fish and poultry. To make it, put pitted olives in a food processor with olive oil, garlic, and your favorite seasonings.

Toss pasta with chopped olives, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs of your choice.

Marinate olives in olive oil, lemon zest, coriander seeds and cumin seeds.

Add chopped olives to your favorite tuna or chicken salad recipe.

Set out a small plate of olives on the dinner table along with some vegetable crudités for your family to enjoy with the meal.

Safety

Olives are not a commonly allergenic food and are not known to contain measurable amounts of goitrogens, oxalates, or purines.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Olives, Ripe
1.00 cup
154.56 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
iron 4.44 mg 24.7 2.9 good
vitamin E 4.03 mg 20.1 2.3 good
dietary fiber 4.30 g 17.2 2.0 good
copper 0.34 mg 17.0 2.0 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

References

  • Aguilera CM, Ramirez-Tortosa MC, Mesa MD, Gil A. [Protective effect of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids on the development of cardiovascular disease]. Nutr Hosp 2001 May-2001 Jun 30;16(3):78-91.
  • Bond R, Lloyd DH. A double-blind comparison of olive oil and a combination of evening primrose oil and fish oil in the management of canine atopy. Vet Rec 1992 Dec 12;131(24):558-60.
  • Ensminger AH, Ensminger, ME, Kondale JE, Robson JRK. Foods & Nutriton Encyclopedia. Pegus Press, Clovis, California.
  • Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986.
  • Fortin, Francois, Editorial Director. The Visual Foods Encyclopedia. Macmillan, New York.
  • Martinez-Dominguez E, de la Puerta R, Ruiz-Gutierrez V. Protective effects upon experimental inflammation models of a polyphenol-supplemented virgin olive oil diet. Inflamm Res 2001 Feb;50(2):102-6.
  • Martinez-Dominguez E, de la Puerta R, Ruiz-Gutierrez V. Protective effects upon experimental inflammation models of a polyphenol-supplemented virgin olive oil diet. Inflamm Res 2001; 50(2): 102-6.
  • Owen RW, Haubner R, Mier W et al. Isolation, structure elucidation and antioxidant potential of the major phenolic and flavonoid compounds in brined olive drupes. Food Chem Toxicol 2003 May; 41(5):703-17.
  • Visioli F, Romani A, Mulinacci N, et al. Antioxidant and other biological activities of olive mill waste waters. J Agric Food Chem 1999 Aug;47(8):3397-401.
  • Wood, Rebecca. The Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Press; 1988.

This page was updated on: 2005-09-08 11:45:22
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation