Even though more attention has been given to their delicious oil than their whole food delights, olives are one of the world’s most widely enjoyed foods. Technically classified as fruits, we commonly think about olives not as fruit but as a zesty vegetable that can be added to salads, meat and poultry dishes and, of course, pizza. Most olives from California and the Mediterranean region in Europe are harvested from late September through November.
While some olives can be eaten right off of the tree, most olives sold commercially have been processed to reduce their intrinsic bitterness. Processing methods vary with the olive variety, region where they are cultivated, and the desired taste, texture and color. Some olives are picked unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree. The color of an olive is not necessarily related to its state of maturity. Many olives start off green and turn black when fully ripe. However, some olives start off green and remain green when fully ripe, while others start of black and remain black. In the United States, where most olives come from California, olives are typically green in color, picked in an unripe state, lye-cured, and then exposed to air as a way of triggering oxidation and conversion to a black outer color. Water curing, brine curing, and lye curing are the most common treatment processes for olives, and each of these treatments can affect the color and composition of the olives.
What’s New and Beneficial About Olives
- Dozens of health-protective nutrients have been identified in olives, and recent studies have taken a very close look at olive varieties, olive processing, and changes that take place in olive nutrients. The overall conclusion from these studies is exciting for anyone who loves olives of all varieties. Greek-style black olives, Spanish-style green olives, Kalamata-style olives, and many different methods of olive preparation provide us with valuable amounts of many different antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. While there are trade-offs that occur during olive ripening and olive curing – for example, decreased oleuropein with advanced stages of ripening yet increased amounts of anthocyanins – it’s impossible to rule out any single type of olive as being unworthy of consideration as a uniquely health-supportive food, particularly in terms of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Hydroxytyrosol, an olive phytonutrient that has long been linked to cancer prevention, is now regarded as having the potential to help us prevent bone loss as well. Several recent laboratory animal studies have found increased depositing of calcium in bone and decreased loss of total bone mass following consumption of this olive phytonutrient (as well as oleuropein, another key phytonutrient found in olives). These findings are fascinating, since consumption of a Mediterranean Diet has long been associated with decreased risk of osteoporosis, and olives often find themselves on center stage in Mediterranean Diet studies.
- In traditional herbal medicine practices, preparations from olives and olive leaves have often been used in treatment of inflammatory problems, including allergy-related inflammation. Olive extracts have now been shown to function as anti-histamines at a cellular level. By blocking special histamine receptors (called H1 receptors), unique components in olive extracts may help to lessen a cell’s histamine response. Because histamine is a molecule that can get overproduced in allergy-related conditions and can be a key player in the inflammatory process, it’s likely that the anti-inflammatory benefits we get from olives involve this anti-histamine pathway. It’s also possible that olives may have a special role to play as part of an overall anti-allergenic diet.
WHFoods Recommendations for Olives
While olives have been traditionally sold in jars and cans, many stores are now offering them in bulk in large barrels or bins (often called an “olive bar”). Buying bulk olives will allow you to experiment with many different types with which you may be unfamiliar and to purchase only as many as you need at one time. It’s also not uncommon to find several different textures, including shiny, wilted, or cracked. The size of olives may range from fairly small to fairly large or jumbo. Each of these options among olive varieties can provide you with valuable health benefits. In general, regardless of the variety you choose, select olives that still display a reasonable about of firmness and are not overly soft or mushy. If you purchase olives in bulk, make sure that the store has a good turnover and keeps their olives immersed in brine for freshness and to retain moistness.
Health Benefits of Eating Olives
Olives provide numerous health benefits including:
- Anti-oxidant support
- Anti-inflammatory protection
- Anti-cancer benefits
Nutritional Profile of Olives
Olives are a remarkable source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Olives are a very good source of copper and a good source of iron, dietary fiber, and vitamin E.
For more on this nutrient-rich food, including references related to this Latest News, see the World’s Healthiest Foods write-up on olives.
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