While most people are familiar with the many health benefits of olive oil, the olives that the oil is extracted from has a lot to offer as well. Technically classed as a fruit that’s derived from the Olea Europea tree, olives are harvested in September, but available year round. Olive trees are some of the oldest trees ever harvested by humans, a practice that dates back more than 8,000 years.
Olives are tasty eaten on their own, tossed onto a pizza as a topping, in a salad, popped into a martini, and in a wide range of meat and poultry dishes. They have sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent flavors that are singularly complex, making them a must for any home cook. Despite what many believe, there are no green olive trees. An olive’s color indicates its ripeness, with green olives ripening and becoming black olives, transforming from green to light brown, to an intense red and purple, before eventually becoming a deep, dark black. The darker an olive is, the riper it was likely to be when it was harvested from the tree.
While there are over two dozen types of olives, the five most common types of olives are:
- Kalamata – These common, widely available olives come from Greece and are usually preserved in oil or vinegar, used to add a salty depth to things like couscous dishes and dips.
- Moroccan salt-cured – These black olives with a wrinkled appearance have an intensely bitter flavor that makes them good in a tagine or a braised chicken dish. They’re cured in salt before being preserved in oil.
- Picholine – These olives originally come from France and are often used in martinis as well as for snacking.
- Cerignola – These large olives come from Italy and are quite meaty. They can be black or green and have a sweet bite. They’re great as part of a cheese board.
Olives contain dozens of nutrients that support overall health, with numerous recent studies coming to the conclusion that no matter the variety, they are incredibly powerful when it comes to anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants. Olives are also a rare fruit in that they contain anywhere from 11 to 15 percent fat, with nearly three-quarters of that fat oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fatty acid that’s been associated with a number of health benefits like reduced inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease. It may even help to battle some types of cancer.
Olives are also high in fiber and are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, iron, copper, and calcium. They contain many plant compounds too, including leuropein, hydroxytyrosol, oleonalic acid, and quercetin, all of which have been associated with numerous health benefits.
Here’s a closer look at why you should really be eating more of them.
Improved Heart Health
High blood pressure and high blood cholesterol and well-known risk factors for heart disease, but thanks to the oleic acid in olives, eating them can improve your heart health to reduce your risk of disease. They help to regulate cholesterol levels and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, according to scientific research. Some studies have also demonstrated that olives can lower high blood pressure. The experts have found that study participants typically experience a reduction in total cholesterol as well as LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and LDL to HDL ratio, all of which reduces the risk of heart disease.
Reducing the Risk of Cancer
In Mediterranean countries, the incidence of cancer (as well as other chronic diseases) is lower than in American and other European nations. Experts believe that at least one of the reasons behind this is the high consumption of olives throughout the Mediterranean, as the fruit contains phenols that serve as chemoprotective and therapeutic agents which act against cancer. In experiments, they were shown to have the ability to disrupt the life cycle of certain types of cancer cells found in the stomach, breast, and colon.
Better Bone Health
Interestingly, the rates of osteoporosis, a devastating bone disease that is characterized by reduced bone quality and bone mass, increasing the risk of fractures, is also lower in Mediterranean countries. That’s led scientists to speculate that olives are also playing a part in better bone health. A number of studies have found that some of the plant compounds in olives, as well as olive oil, may help prevent bone loss. While these studies were conducted on animals, and more human studies need to be conducted, experts say this research that links a Mediterranean diet and olives to lower fracture rates is promising.
Inflammation is an essential part of the body’s immune response. It helps us to heal after an injury, fight off foreign invaders such as a bacteria and viruses, and repair damaged tissue. The problem is when it becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is the root of many health conditions, including being linked to arthritis, diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and many other ailments.
Olives and olive oil have well-documented anti-inflammatory properties thanks to their high level of phytonutrients. They help to reduce inflammation in a number of ways, including by decreasing levels of leukotriene B4 (LTB4), a very common pro-inflammatory messaging molecule. One of olives unique phytonutrients, oleuropein, has been found to reduce the activity of an enzyme that’s been linked to unwanted inflammation.
Supporting Brain Health
Olives and olive oil are great for brain health too, including having the ability to battle age-related cognitive decline, due to reducing excess inflammation, oxidative stress and other factors that can lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Consuming olives can even help lift one’s mood, leading to clearer, more focused thinking, as the brain requires a significant amount of fatty acids, which both olives and olive oil has. Olive oil has even been associated with a lower risk of depression. Research from Spain’s University of Las Palmas, demonstrated that when comparing study participants who consumed trans fats regularly with those whose dietary fat consisted primarily of olive oil, the trans fat consumers had a 48% higher risk of developing depression.
So use olives in your dishes regularly, and turn to them whenever you’re in need of a tasty snack, they’re a fabulous way to support your good health.