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Olives: How Healthy are They? Which Olives are Best?

Olives are one of the oldest foods known to man, dating back some 8,000 years in the Mediterranean region. The olive tree was valued as a symbol of peace and happiness, while olives were used as food and a source of oil.

Olive soup is a good remedy for a sore throat, according to traditional Chinese medicine (it's also the only time olives are used in Chinese cuisine).

Today everyone knows how good olive oil is for health, but the humble olive is often passed up (often because they've unfairly gotten a bad rap for being high in fat). However, olives are actually a very healthy fruit, one that's been lending superb nutrition to mankind for centuries. So there's no need to pass up that tempting olive bar at the market any longer -- olives are good for you!

All Olives Start Out Green

If you take a look at your local supermarket, you'll see olives in a rainbow of colors, from green to brown to purple to black, with flavors just as diverse, ranging from sweet to sour. But all olives actually start out the same: green.

Unripe olives are incredibly bitter and not edible. To become the tasty fruits you're more familiar with, they must have their bitterness, which is caused by a substance called oleuropin, removed. This is done through a variety of curing processes, as even simply cooking an olive is not enough to get rid of the bitterness.

olive recipes

Some Olive Varieties You
May Not Have Heard Of …

  • Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.

  • Halkidiki: A tangy green olive from Greece's Halkidiki peninsula.

  • Gaeta: A small, salty Italian olive.

  • Cerignola: A very meaty, giant green olive harvested in Cerignola, Italy.

  • Bitetto: A sweeter olive from southern Italy.

Olives are picked at varying stages of ripeness (as they ripen they gradually turn from green to black) and cured using one of several processes, including soaking in oil, brine or water, or dry packing in salt. A more artificial (but faster, taking only days as opposed to months) method also used (particularly for canned black olives) is soaking the olives in lye, which removes the bitterness but also takes away much of the olive's flavor.

The Health Benefits of Olives

Traditionally cured olives, such as those found at most olive bars, offer a host of health benefits. For starters, they're rich in iron, vitamin E and copper, and are an excellent source of fiber. But what about all the fat?

It's true that olives do have some fat, but it's the incredibly healthy monounsaturated variety. Monounsaturated fats have been found to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.

However, olives contain a triple whammy for your health that works in synergy to provide extreme benefits. Along with monounsaturated fats, olives are rich in vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant that neutralizes damaging free radicals, along with polyphenols and flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties.

It is the combination of these three health-boosting compounds that make olives:

  • Have a protective effect on cells that can lower the risk of damage and inflammation

  • Help reduce the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis

  • Help prevent heart disease

  • Help prevent colon cancer

  • Help prevent the frequency and intensity of hot flashes in women going though menopause

When choosing olives for their health benefits (and flavor) always opt for those that have been traditionally cured (as opposed to lye-processed). No matter what the variety, they're sure to add a burst of flavor and nutrition to any dish.

Love Olives? Try These Delicious (and Unique) Recipes!

Green Olive Soup


  • 2 cups cracked green olives, Mideastern or Greek, soaked in water for an hour, drained, and chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry

Garnish: minced parsley


  1. In a large saucepan, sauté the onions, garlic, and two-thirds of the olives in the olive oil until the onions are transparent. Puree with 1 cup of stock.
  2. Heat oil in the saucepan and stir in flour and cayenne, cooking into a roux. Whisk in remaining stock, then pour in the puree. Bring to a slow boil, let thicken, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in cream, pepper, and remaining chopped olives, bring back to a boil, then simmer 5 more minutes.
  3. When ready to serve, heat to serving temperature, stir in sherry and cook for a minute, then ladle into bowls. Garnish with generous pinches of minced parsley.


Homemade Olive Tapenade


  • 20 pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon rinsed, drained, and chopped capers
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)
  • Fresh cracked black pepper


  1. Mix well. Refrigerate and use within two weeks.
  2. Use as a spread for sandwiches like panini and muffaletta, serve with crackers or use as a condiment.


Recommended Reading

The 6 Healthiest Staple Foods in Greek Cuisine

Jicama: the Healthy, Versatile Vegetable that Tastes Like a Fruit and Acts Like a Water Chestnut


The World's Healthiest Foods

Whole Foods Market

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