Olive and Olive Oil: Benefits for your Health

The well-known advantages of the Mediterranean diet have led many people in search of healthy foods to turn to olive oil. However, the benefits of olive oil should not obscure the value of table olives, which have their own distinct nutritional value.

Both are rich in nutrients that help to guard against disease. Some of these, such as oleuropein, are unique to olives. It is the diversity of different compounds involved and the way in which they complement each other that make the nutritional qualities of olive oil so impressive.

As an oil, olive oil consists nearly entirely of fats. 

However, it is in fact not harmful to the cardiovascular system when consumed in moderation. This is because most of the fat content of olive oil consists of the monounsaturated oleic acid. Small amounts of essential fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids are also present. The consumption of monounsaturated fats is linked to lowered blood cholesterol, and the effect is greater for the harmful LDL cholesterol. Changes in cell signalling patterns can also lead to lower blood pressure when a switch is made from other kinds of fat to monounsaturated fats. The most recent published work on the subject (as of February 2013) confirms that a Mediterranean diet containing extra virgin olive oil can reduce the risk of death from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems. Extra virgin olive oil also contains high levels of polyphenols (a type of phytonutrient); much more so than table olives, since some are removed from during curing. These nutrients are believed to help protect against diseases. Olive oil also contains very little salt, something which is not true of table olives.

On the other hand, although it is a good fat, olive oil is still higher in calories than table olives. Ten olives contain only about a third of the calories of a tablespoon of olive oil. Whole olives are a source of fibre and, if naturally fermented, of useful bacteria. Olive oil does not have these advantages. Green table olives usually contain more polyphenols than black olives, and have a lower oil content. This is because black olives are allowed to ripen on the tree and lose some polyphenols in the process. They are also higher in salt, however. There are also trade-offs between olives of different maturities regarding the content of beneficial compounds; greater maturity as well as different curing processes reduce the levels of some health-promoting substances but increase those of others. Vitamin E levels may increase during early ripening and then drop later, whereas the total antioxidant content may undergo the reverse of this process.
In sum: both table olives and extra virgin olive oil have health benefits when consumed as part of a well-balanced diet. Since they are not substitutes in cooking, you’ll probably want to enjoy both in moderation.

The nutrients contained in olives are known to improve the functioning of various parts of the body. These include:

  • Heart: The best-known benefit of olives and olive oil has already been mentioned: protection from cardiovascular disease. Olives contain good monounsaturated fats, as well as antioxidants that inhibit cholesterol oxidation that can be harmful.
  • Eyes: The vitamin A contained in olives is important for the proper functioning of night vision. It also protects against certain disorders, such as glaucoma and cataracts.
  • Blood: Iron is needed by red blood cells to convey oxygen to various other cells.
  • Skin and hair: There are a number of antioxidant substances and fatty acids in olives that promote the health of skin and hair. One that can be used both internally and externally is vitamin E. This vitamin reduces the susceptibility of skin to ultraviolet rays, thus protecting it against damage that leads to aging and increases the risk of skin cancer. The use of extra virgin olive oil for hair or skin is a natural way of strengthening and moisturising it.
  • Bone and connective tissue: The vitamin E, polyphenols and mono-unsaturated fats found in olives have anti-inflammatory properties and may reduce the pain associated with arthritis and other inflammatory processes. Several channels through which constituents of olives may reduce inflammation have been identified, including blocking particular histamine receptors and reducing the levels of some chemicals associated with inflammation in the body. Olives and olive oil consequently have the potential to relieve allergy symptoms.
  • Another substance, hydroxytyrosol, which is also linked to cancer prevention, is thought to help prevent bone loss due to osteoporosis.
  • Digestive system: Olive oil helps to regulate hormones in the digestive system. This can help to reduce problems associated gastritis and ulcers, as well as the risk of gallstones. Table olives also contain significant amounts of fibre. Fibre has a range of positive effects on digestion, including regulating the absorption of nutrients that are converted into blood sugar, thus reducing the risk of diabetes.

Olives have one further very important benefit: reducing the incidence of cancers. The vitamin E and other antioxidants they contain can help to reduce oxidative stresses that damage cells and that could lead to mutations resulting in cancer. Studies show that the polyphenols in olive oil are effective against breast cancer cells, while maslinic acid, a substance found in olive skin, acts against colon cancer cells. These chemicals induce self-destructive processes in the malignant cells. The anti-inflammatory properties of some of the compounds in olives may also reduce cell damage that can lead to cancer.

Buying and Serving Table Olives

Olives are essential in a much gourmet cooking, especially in Italian food. There is a huge variety of table olives on the market. The product may be sold in all kinds of sizes; the textures can vary from plump and shine to wilted, and the colours may include bright greens, yellowish or greyish greens, red-brown, red, purple or black. While all these olives may be superbly flavourful and represent an excellent nutritional choice, it is best to choose olives that are not too soft.

Opened jars of olives can be stored in the refrigerator for at least one or two weeks. Some olives that have been cured in brine can be kept for as long as two months.

The fruit can be pitted by pressing them with the flat of a broad knife blade. Breaking the pulp in this way makes it easy to extract the pit with the knife. The brine remaining in the jar can be used in savoury recipes requiring salt and water.

Olives are extremely versatile. 

Here are a few simple serving suggestions:

  • Chop some olives and use them in chicken salad or tuna salad.
  • To make olive tapenade, pit olives and mix them in a food processor with garlic, olive oil, and flavourings such as lemon juice, herbs or anchovies. Olive tapenade is useful for spreading, dipping, spreading or topping.
  • Add chopped olives to pasta together with olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and herbs and seasonings.
  • Olives make an excellent side dish or snack, especially together with crudités. Olive tapenade also works well as a dip.
  • They can be marinated with various seasonings and olive oil. Grated lemon peel, cumin and coriander are a superb combination.
  • Olives are a classic pizza topping.
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