Written by 8:12 pm Nutrition Articles, Fruits

Tiny Fruit, Big Benefits: The Nutritional Riches of Olives

In the heart of a bustling city, there lies a small, quiet café owned by Isabella, where she creates magic with her hands. Her favorite ingredient? Nature’s miniature marvel — Olives that add a pop of color and freshness to every cuisine they are incorporated into, with their rich history and unique taste.

But did you know that these tiny fruits possess colossal nutrition as well? They are known as the unsung heroes of a healthy diet. So let us immerse ourselves into the gardens of olives, where taste meets health, and uncover the incredible health benefits of these tiny orbs of deliciousness.

What are olives?

The main ingredient of popular Mediterranean dishes, olives, scientifically known as Olea europaea, which means European olive, are small fruits that grow on olive trees and belong to a group called drupes. Drupes or stone fruits have fleshy outer parts and inner hard seeds such as mangoes, cherries, and peaches. They are grown in the Mediterranean Region, South America, South Africa, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico.

The olive trees range in size from 3-12 meters; their narrow leaves are colored dark green from the above and silvery from the inner side. Their flowers bloom in late spring into a whitish color in clusters. They have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years; olive trees are one of the oldest trees to harvest, they date back over 8000 years.

To determine whether the olives are ripe, the farmers put a small slit in the fruit, and small spilling of juice indicates their condition. Raw olives are inedible and bitter due to the presence of glucoside and the ability to numb the mouth for hours, so bringing them in salt water for some time makes the bitterness go away.

Spain and Italy were the first countries to produce olive oil from the fruit, followed by Greece. Other olive oil-producing countries are Turkey, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Portugal. Olives are not only delicious but also famous for their heart-healthy benefits and anti-oxidant activity.

Nutritional composition:

Green olives:

100 g of green olives contains 145 calories and 1.03 g of protein. 3.84 g of carbohydrates come from fiber (3.30 g) and sugars (0.54g). Olives are rich in fats (15.30 g) that split into monounsaturated fats (11.31 g), polyunsaturated fats (1.30 g), and saturated fats (2.02 g).

In micro-nutrients, green olives are good sources of vitamin A, vitamin E, folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

NutrientsAmount
Calories145 g
Carbohydrates3.84 g
Fiber3.30 g
Sugars0.54 g
Proteins1.03 g
Fats15.30 g
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids11.31 g
Polyunsaturated fatty acids1.30 g
Saturated fats2.02 g
Vitamin A20 mcg
Thiamine0.021 g
Riboflavin0.007 g
Niacin0.237 g
Vitamin B60.031 mg
Folate3.00 mcg
Vitamin E3.81 mg
Vitamin K1.4 mcg
Calcium52 mg
Copper0.12 mg
Iron0.49 mg
Magnesium11 mg
Phosphorus4 mg
Potassium42 mg
Selenium0.90 mcg

Black olives:

100 g of black olives incorporate 116 calories, less than the green ones. They contain 6.04 g of carbohydrates, mainly from fiber (1.60 g). black olives are high in fats (10.900 g) divided into mono-unsaturated fatty acids (7.65 g), polyunsaturated fatty acids (0.62 g), and saturated fats (2.279 g).

They are good sources of vitamin E, Vitamin K, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, though their levels are lower than green olives.

NutrientsAmount
Calories116
Carbohydrates6.04 g
Fiber1.60 g
Sugar0 g
Fats10.900 g
Saturated fats2.279 g
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids7.65 g
Polyunsaturated fatty acids0.62 g
Vitamin A17 mcg
Thiamine0.003 mg
Niacin0.037 mg
Vitamin B60.009 mg
Vitamin C0.9 mg
Vitamin E1.65 mg
Vitamin K1.4 mcg
Calcium88 mg
Copper0.25 mg
Iron6.28 mg
Magnesium4.00 mg
Phosphorus3.00 mg
Potassium8.00 mg
Selenium0.90 mcg
Zinc0.22 mg

Varieties of olives:

Though we have discussed the nutritional layout of only black and green olives, there lies a world of olives beyond these. Olives take their peculiar qualities from their genetics, climate, region, and harvest. Below are the 14 different varieties of olives:

Kalamata:

Found and grown in Greece, Kalamata olives are deep purple with shiny skin and almond shape. Their rich Smokey, and fruity flavor comes out when preserved in red wine or red wine vinegar. They can be used as a tapenade where olives are mixed with capers and herbs to form a spread or can be roasted with cauliflower.

Castelvetrano:

Its name comes from the region in Italy it grows in. They are large, green-colored olives with crispy and buttery flavor. Castelventrano olives go well with garlic, cheese, capers, and anchovies.

Nyon:

Grown in the south of France, these tiny olives taste meaty and slightly bitter. They are first dry-cured and aged in brine. Dress these olives with provencal olive oil and herbs like thyme and rosemary.

Nicoise:

This black olive is crucial for classic French dishes like Salad Nicoise and tapenade. The taste is subtle and not empowering with an herbal fragrance.

Liguria:

Also known as taggiasca olives, Liguria olives grow in Italy and are small. Liguria comes in green and black color with an aromatic mixture of bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme.

Gaeta: 

Gaeta is small, purplish-brown, and wrinkled olives with a fresh, tart, and citrusy taste. They can be dry-cured or brine-cured and served over spaghetti or in a bowl.

Picholine:

These Torpedo-shaped green olives have crispy, tart, nutty flavor and are used in risottos and hearty stews.

Gordal:

Gordal means “fat one” in Spanish, meaning these big, fat olives originate from Spain. They are green in color and have firm and meaty richness.

Alfonso:

Alfonso olives are large, deep-purple juicy olives with a fleshy texture and slightly bitter taste. These Chile-grown olives are savored in charcuterie and red wine.

Mission:

As the name shows, they are native to the US, although their origin is believed to be Spanish. These are black and have a mild, grassy flavor. Most of these olives go to make olive oil.

Manzanilla:

These green, oval-shaped olives originate from Spain and are smokey and almond-flavored.

Beldi:

Beldi are native to Morocco and are wild and intense in flavor and black in color.

Amfissa:

Grown in Greece, Amfissa comes in black and green color. They are soft with mild and fruity flavor and are best served in stews and soups, or cheese.

Role in human nutrition:

Olives offer a range of health benefits. Some of the prominent ones are:

Antioxidant properties:

Olives have strong antioxidant properties that help fight against infections and free radicals. Free radicals are the unstable atoms in the body that damage cells and cause illnesses such as cancer, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and aging.

A study showed that a dietary intake of 10mg per day of polyphenols particularly Hydroxytyrosol, from olives improves the anti-oxidant activity (1).

Heart health:

Olives are high in fats, especially oleic acid- a monounsaturated fatty acid. They help lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and decrease blood pressure. If you don’t have olives available, you can use olive oil to cook your food instead of cooking oil.

Cancer prevention:

People residing in Mediterranean regions have less prevalence of cancers and cardiovascular diseases as compared to Western countries. This is because it is abundant in olives and olive oil, along with the Mediterranean diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, and fibers.

Various components in olives and olive oil help protect the body against cancers. A monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid, found in olives helps prevent cancer, while squalene also shows anti-cancer effects. Oleic and linoleic acid have exhibited anti-cancer properties in prostate cancer cells.

Olive oil is a good source of polyphenols and antioxidants with anti-cancer properties, especially in colon cancer. Oleuropein- an antioxidant and anti-angiogenic agent, has also exhibited anti-cancer properties. 

Bone health:

Skeletal mass decreases with aging, which increases the risk of bone fragility and fractures. This condition is called “Osteoporosis” and that affects elderly men and women globally. In the year 2000, nine million were disabled from hip fractures.

The prevalence of osteoporosis in the Mediterranean region is lower than that of Western countries, which shows that a Mediterranean diet enriched with olive fruit and olive oil is associated with increased bone mass and density in the elderly.

A human study showed the positive effects of an olive and olive oil-enriched diet on bone formation markers in the elderly (2). Olive consumption not only helps in bone mass and bone density but also increases calcium absorption and calcium balance. This could be due to the phenolic compounds in the fruit and the oil such as tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol, and oleuropein. These phenolic compounds are powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agents that may aid in the prevention of osteoporosis (3).

Diabetes prevention:

Olives, especially extra virgin olive oil, help prevent and manage type 2 diabetes. While diabetes has no cure, two available options are preventing and managing the disease, and extra virgin olive oil is an excellent way to do that.

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by increased blood sugar and insulin resistance. The polyphenol Oleuropein found in olive oil helps lower blood sugar by improving insulin sensitivity.

Since diabetes patients are advised to consume low-glycemic foods, studies show that adding extra virgin olive to food lowers the glycemic index of high-glycemic foods.

Diabetes patients are usually advised to reduce weight as most of them are overweight. That is where olive oil comes to the rescue, where adding just 1.5 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil to the food helps shed a few extra pounds.

Olive leaf extracts have anti-oxidant properties, and adding them to your diet may help manage type 2 diabetes (4).

Reduce chronic inflammation:

Chronic inflammation plays a major role in developing diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis. Olives are rich in antioxidants such as hydroxytyrosol and oleanolic acids that help reduce chronic inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory biomarkers.

Improves gut health:

The gut microbiota contains over 100 trillion microbial cells responsible for the normal physiological processes of the body. Any imbalance in these can cause inflammation and alter the physiological system. Extra virgin olive oil acts as a probiotic for these microbes and helps maintain the intestinal barrier, reduces the production of pro-inflammatory biomarkers, and lowers the total cholesterol levels in the body.

The polyphenols in the olive act as prebiotics and inhibit the production of pathogenic bacteria such as E.coli.

Adverse effects:

While olives offer a variety of health benefits, some of the unfavorable effects of olives are discussed below:

High in sodium:

Olives are generally high in sodium; one olive contains about 60 mg of Sodium. So, the consumption of olives should not surpass 5 to 6 a day.

Drug interactions:

Olives might interact with blood sugar and blood pressure medications, so keep it in mind when you are consuming olives. 

Allergy:

Allergy to olives is rare but frequent to the tree. So, if you experience any allergic symptoms after eating olives, please consult your doctor right away!

Black olives vs green olives: which is better for you?

Though they are considered the best friends with almost similar nutritional differences, if you like olives, you know there are merits to both types.

Green olives have more sodium, calories, fats, and vitamin E than black ones, while black olives contain more iron. Green olives are often served stuffed with cheese, garlic, and pepper, which makes them high-caloric.

Polyphenol and phytochemical content of green olives are higher due to their early harvest. They are both high in fiber, but green olives have slightly more fiber than black ones, while black ones have less sugar than green olives.

So, it all comes down to whatever variety you choose and prefer!

Olive Processing and Storage:

Storage of olives after harvest:

Fresh olives, particularly black olives, should be processed within a few days of harvest, while the green ones can be stored for some time. The ideal temperature to store olives in shallow, ventilated boxes is between 41F to 50F, as storage in colder temperatures for a prolonged period can cause chill injury that to skin browning.

Processing and Storage of olives at home:

Storing olives at home is not complicated and requires a few steps.

  • First and foremost, give your olives a thorough wash for a few minutes to remove any dirt or debris.
  • After washing, it’s time to remove the bitterness that comes with fresh olives. Soak the olives in water for 24 to 48 hours while regularly changing the water. If the bitterness persists, brine them in salt water solution.
  • Remove the pit by gently pressing down on the olive which causes the pit to pop out.
  • It’s time to brine the olives now! Prepare a saltwater solution and add your favorite herbs, spices, and lemon zest for the extra flavor. Add the olives to a clean jar (glass, steel, plastic) and pour the brine solution over it, making sure they are fully submerged into the brine. Tighten the lid and keep them in a cool and dark place for at least a month. Remember, the longer the wait, the better they taste!

How to incorporate olives into your diet?

Snacking:

Olives make an easy and delicious snack whenever your tummy feels a little empty. Grab a handful of butter olives while working in the kitchen or on the way to go out!

Salads:

Toss some black or kalamata olives into your canvas of greens for an extra burst of flavor and nutrition.

Cooking:

Olives can be a great ingredient to add to your pasta, stews, casseroles, and soups to add healthy fats to your diet.

Dips:

Dips and olives? Yes, you read that right, make a delicious olive-based hummus and dip whatever you want in it. But don’t forget the health benefits while enjoying a hearty olive-centered meal.

Pizza:

I wouldn’t include Pizzas to a list of healthy foods one can add olives, but indulging in your favorite foods every once in a while is not a bad idea. You can add olives as a topping in your pizzas to include the bitter and sweet taste of this petite fruit.

Olive oil:

The easiest and the most popular way to add olives to your diet is olive oil; add it to your cooking or salad dressing and, tada! You have the nutrition of olives added to your diet.

In the end, olives are more than just an ingredient to your salad and a topping in your pizza. These delicious miniature fruits are nutritional powerhouses that not only enhance the taste of the food they are added to, but provide countless nutrients that help the body fight against major chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and inflammation.

References:

  1. https://doi.org/10.1024/0300-9831.79.3.152
  2. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-2221
  3. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0955-2863(02)00229-2
  4. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/antiox12061275
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