While the fruit of Olea europaea is usually not the main attraction of any culinary creation,
recipes would be lacking if not for this ancient drupe commonly known as the olive, the
incredible edible olive.
Mainly planted around the Mediterranean basin, olives literally go back as far as civilized man.
There are olive trees in Italy claimed to be 3000 to 4000 years old and tree ring confirmed
2000 year old trees in Greece.
The olive branch itself has symbolized both victory – olive branch wreaths placed on the brows
of victors - and peace – the dove clutching an olive branch in its beak. Even our national seal
has the eagle clutching olive branches in its right talon (peace) along with arrows in the left
(war) though I side with Ben Franklin’s observation that “there has never been, or ever will be,
any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace."
In any case, both the fruit and the oil of the olive have a necessary place in culture and cuisine.
Where are the Fresh Olives?
Freshly harvested can’t be consumed as is. Well they can if you enjoy consuming extremely
bitter foods that potentially can make you sick because of unpalatable glycosides and phenolic
compounds. Both green and black olives require washing and soaking to remove oleuropein
which is a bitter carbohydrate in olives. Sometimes the freshly picked olives are also processed
with food grade sodium hydroxide (lye) to facilitate this process. Processing also helps to
remove other unpalatable phenolic compounds also found in fresh olives. After the water or lye
processing, olives are usually then fermented and brined which produces flavorful compounds
that enhance their taste or give them unique qualities. I’m sure that you can determine the
flavor differences between black Kalamata versus green Picholine versus brown Arbequina olives
even if you’ve never tried them before.
The potential nutritive qualities of olives first gained attention with the Mediterranean Diet.
The observation that people in the Mediterranean had lower rates of heart disease compared to
our population despite consuming about the same amount of fat was first seen in the 1940s but
didn’t gain attention until the 1990s. It was theorized that a higher percentage of animal fat in
the West increased cardiovascular disease risk and that the higher consumption of olive oil in the
Mediterranean protected that population from the same affliction.
Of course this would be an oversimplification to assume that the cardiovascular benefits are due
simply to olive oil – its not. There are many other factors that make Americans different from
those in the Mediterranean. Their diets also tend to have greater amounts of fruit and
vegetables, their physical activity is different (probably greater), they eat more seafood and
legumes and more of their food is unprocessed. They also seem to know how to relax more than
the frenzied American lifestyle.
So are olives and olive oil good as part of a healthy diet? If you include them as part of an
overall healthy lifestyle, I would say definitely yes.
For starters, if you replace olives and olive oil for animal fat, that’s definitely a good start. Olives
contain less saturated fat than the usual animal fat so dipping your bread in olive oil instead of
slathering it with butter or cream cheese is a good start to a healthy lifestyle. Or how about
reducing that serving of beef or pork and increasing the salad portion (which includes olive oil
vinaigrette). Total fat won’t really change so you won’t feel starved but saturated fat will
definitely be reduced which in turn reduces serum cholesterol. That’s a good thing.
One tablespoon of olive oil contains 14gm of fat. These 14gm of fat are further broken down to
about 10.5gm of monounsaturated fat, 2gm of saturated fat and about 1.5gm of
polyunsaturated fat. The abundance of monounsaturated fat in olives supposedly gives it one of
its heart healthy qualities. As I previously mentioned saturated fat raises serum cholesterol,
specifically the bad cholesterol or LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats have been shown to
lower LDL cholesterol (a good thing) but in some cases also reduce good cholesterol or HDL
cholesterol (a bad thing). Monounsaturated fats have been shown lower LDL cholesterol but
they can maintain or raise HDL cholesterol too (a double good thing).
Is Extra Virgin the Antithesis to Almost Pregnant?
Extra virgin olive oil refers to the purest form of oil pressed out of the olive. In some cases stone
grinders are employed, in other cases hydraulic presses are used. In either case extra virgin olive
oil cannot contain more than 0.8 of residual acid or free oleic acid (the monounsaturated fatty
acid in olive oil) and must be cold pressed. Virgin olive cannot contain more than 2% residual
acid though both extra virgin and virgin olive oils cannot be chemically processed.
Since most of the big box retailers sell extra virgin olive oil for a decent price, I usually purchase
their label for cooking but also keep a small bottle of gourmet extra virgin olive oil (Badia a
Coltibuono or L’Estornell) along with small bottles of garlic infused olive oil and lemon infused
olive oil. Why small bottles? Since olive oil is more than 85% mono or polyunsaturated, it will
oxidize over time which means that at the very least, the flavors will dissipate and at the worst,
form funky new fatty acids in the bottle.
The Great Fat Substitution
I’m not suggesting simply adding copious amounts of olives and olive oil to your diet. What I’m
suggesting is swapping a bit of animal fat here, a bit there for that alternative fat found in
olives. Reduce that steak serving for a little more olive oil roasted veggies. Swap butter or cream
cheese for an olive oil and balsamic based dip. Or swap that cold cut sandwich for this bean and
olive based spread. And perhaps a little more of that Mediterranean lifestyle with more physical
activity, more relaxation and perhaps a glass of vin rouge with your next meal.
Bean & Olive Spread
2 – 16 oz cans fat free refried beans
1 - 4 ¼ oz can chopped olives
1 – 4 oz can roast, diced green chiles
2 tsp chili powder
½ tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp dried cilantro
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
2 heaping tbsp Goya Recaito sauce (optional)
Hot sauce to taste (optional)
Mix all ingredients in a large mixing bowl until all ingredients thoroughly incorporated.
Serve with crackers, chips or sliced baguettes or use as a healthy sandwich spread. Options
include adding diced fresh tomatoes, cooked brown rice or barley, fresh cilantro or roasted diced
Use in place of usual sandwich spreads (mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup) with sliced grilled
chicken breast or pork tenderloin with sautéed peppers for a “fajita” sandwich in a sliced
The Incredible Edible Olive