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Olives nutrition facts

Olives are oval-shaped fruits obtained from the Olea europaea tree; a naturalized, medium-size tree of Mediterranean origin. The fruits, and oil extracted from them, have been part of important food sources for the natives around Mediterranean Sea since centuries. Ancient Greeks believed in that growing olive would bring peace and prosperity to the region since the entire population would rely up on this crop in order to secure most of the life essentialities.

Botanically, the fruits belong to the family of Oleaceae, in the genus: Olea.

olive tree-olea europaea fresh olive fruits
Olive tree.
Photo courtesy: A.Poulos
Olives (olea europaea).

Olive is a slow growing, evergreen tree with gnarled trunk dividing into grey, fissured branches and foliage of gray-green, fleshy, narrow leaves. It may reach up to 50 feet in height in their natural habitat and may last for more than 500 years. It grows well under frost free, dry, and well-drained soils. It starts bearing fruits when the plant reaches about 3-4 years of age, however, some cultivars may take much longer time before their first harvest. The tree blooms in the spring which subsequently develops into small round to oval green color berries by summer.

Olive is a drupe or stone-fruit with a central single seed (pit), surrounded by edible pulp. Their size and shape greatly varies depending on the cultivar type. On an average, a fruit weighs about 3-5 g. Raw fruits are green and turn yellow to dark as they ripen further. Olives are generally picked at different stages depending up on whether they destined to be used as table fruits or pressed into oil.

Health benefits of olives

  • Traditionally, olives have been viewed as a very healthy food. Beside providing energy, they compose of significant amounts of plant-derived anti-oxidants, minerals, phyto-sterols, and vitamins.

  • Olives are a moderate source of calories; 100 g of fruits carry just 115 calories. Their calorie content basically comes from fats. Nonetheless, the fruit composes healthy fat in the form of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) like oleic acid (18:1) and palmitoleic acid (16:1) that help lower LDL or "bad cholesterol" and increase HDL or "good cholesterol" in the blood. Research studies suggest that Mediterranean diet which is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids help to prevent coronary artery disease and strokes by favoring healthy blood lipid profile.

  • Olive fruit contains tyrosol phenolic compounds such as oleuropein and oleocanthal. These compounds are responsible for its bitter and pungent taste. Oleocanthal, oleurpein, and its derivative hydroxytyrosol are nature’s most powerful anti-oxidants. Together with vitamin E and carotenoids, they play a vital role fighting against cancer, inflammation, coronary artery disease, degenerative nerve diseases, diabetes…etc.

  • Studies suggest that oleocanthal has ibuprofen (NSAID) like ant-inflammatory activities. Mediterranean diet that uses olive and its oil may be responsible in part for the lower incidences of coronary artery disease.

  • Olive contains a good amount of vitamin E. 100 g of cured, and canned fruits provide 1.65 mg (11% of RDA) of alpha-tocopherol. Vitamin E is a powerful lipid soluble antioxidant, required for maintaining the integrity of cell membrane of mucusa and skin by protecting it from harmful oxygen-free radicals.

  • In addition, they contain good amounts of minerals like calcium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc. Further, they are small sources of B-complex vitamins such as niacin, choline, and pantothenic acid.

  • Oil expressed from these fruits is recognized as one of the healthiest edible oils since it contains less saturated fat, and composes linoleic (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3) essential fatty acids at the recommended 8:1 ratio.

Selection and storage

cured green olives
Cured green olives.

Olives intended to be used as table fruits should be bigger in size and have more pulp to pit ratio. Some of olive varieties are grown especially meant for use as table fruits and pickling.

Raw olives cannot be eaten as they are and require treatment for their bitter principle oleuoropein. Some enthusiast olive-fans may want to cure them on their own. If you are placed at close quarters to any olive farms that sell raw fruits, try to buy fresh olives for home-curing. Otherwise, almost all the types of olives in the markets are already treated of their bitter compound. Different kinds of curing and processing techniques of raw-green or ripe fruits exist.

In the groceries, customers are equally spoiled of choices; pitted, oil-cured, stuffed, sliced, etc. Home-cured olives should be placed inside a plastic or glass container immersed in a light brine or olive oil. For extended storage, place them under strong brine.

Once at home, packed/canned olives may be kept at a dark cool place until the “use by” date from the manufacturer. However, once opened, the fruits should be placed inside the refrigerator, preferably transferred onto a glass or plastic bowl and immersed in the brine. Use them within 1-2 months of purchase.

Preparation and serving methods

Cured olives have been essential part of Mediterranean diet since ancient times, especially in the Greece, Spain and Italian households. Cured and ready to eat olives are available in the stores and all you have to do once open the jar is to give them a wash in clean water to bring down sodium content. Some prefer to cure their own olives using traditional methods and avoid commercial lye-cured (sodium hydroxide) ones for many reasons.

Either of cured black and green olives are equally popular as finger food and as well as one of the chief ingredients in recipes. Some of the well-known black (ripe) types include Manzanillo from Spain and Kalamata from Greece; and among the green types are: Hojiblanca (Spain), and Lucques (France).

Here are some serving tips

  • Traditionally, olives are eaten as side-food or snack in-between meals.

  • They chiefly served as appetizers or starters.

  • Pitted or sliced olives add great flavor to salads, in pasta and on pizza toppings.

  • They also give a special salty flavor to dips, sauces, tapenade etc.

Safety profile

Olives are safe food to eat; however, some individuals might manifest some allergic symptoms to lye brine (caustic soda). Additionally, lye or salt cured olives contain high concentration of sodium than recommended intake. Shift the fruits into a bowl and wash in clean water few times until all the lye/salt content removed. (Medical disclaimer).

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Further Resources:

1. USDA National Nutrient Database. (opens new window).

2. International Olive Council-http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/.

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