January 2020 Issue
Healthful Fats: Olives in the Spotlight — A Small Fruit With Big Flavor and Hefty Health Benefits
By Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
Vol. 22, No. 1, P. 12
A staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is well known for its heart health benefits, but what do we know about the fruit the oil comes from? Olives (Olea europaea) have a long history dating back 6,000 to 8,000 years from Turkey and Syria to Palestine, Israel, and the rest of the Mediterranean. Today, the majority of global olives come from Spain and less than 1% of the world’s olive market is American olives, which primarily come from California.1
The olive is a fruit in the drupe family that includes cherries, peaches, and plums, which have a soft fleshy exterior surrounding a hard pit. Unlike many other drupes, olives have a low sugar and high oil content and are naturally bitter due to the compound oleuropein. It’s through the process of curing that we get the tender, salty olives often enjoyed in martinis and stews, such as ropa vieja; in tossed salads and pasta dishes; and puréed into tapenades.1
With more than 500 different varieties of olives, there’s something for everyone. Depending on the length of time olives are left on the tree to ripen, they can range in color from green to brown to purple.2,3 Let’s take a look at some of the most popular olive varieties that can be found in supermarkets and specialty groceries, as well as some delicious ways to enjoy them and reap their health benefits.
One of the most famous types of olives in the world, Southern Spanish Manzanilla olives often are sold in supermarkets simply as “green olives.” The large green olives have a small pit, which is why they’re generally found pitted and stuffed with pimento peppers or garlic. Manzanilla olives are brine-cured and have a slightly smoky, rich flavor and crisp texture. They’re classically served with a glass of sherry or a plate of tapas.3,4
A small, green French olive, the Picholine is brine-cured and often treated with citric acid to maintain its color. Picholine olives are salty and fruity in taste and crisp and firm in texture. They’re often served as part of an antipasto platter or with cocktails but also are commonly paired with seafood.3,5,6
These well-known Greek olives (the most popular table olive in the United States) are deep purple to black in color and have an almond shape. They’re meaty in texture and have a complex tart and smoky flavor. Kalamata olives are one of the later varietals to be harvested, hence their darker color and more tender flesh. Once harvested, they’re cured with water and salt for about three months, depending on the fruit’s size. They’re usually preserved in red wine vinegar or olive oil, which gives them their distinctive fruity flavor. Kalamata olives can be enjoyed as table olives; added to salads, pasta dishes, and pizzas; and used to make tapenade.3,5,7
Best known for being found in a traditional French Salad Niçoise, the Niçoise olive is classic in French cuisine. Like Kalamata olives, Niçoise olives are harvested late in the season when the fruit is fully ripe, and they’re cured with water and salt for three months. Niçoise olives are small, brown to black in color, and are most often packed with oil and herbs for a rich, tart flavor. In addition to being served as table olives, Niçoise olives are delicious when paired with tuna, anchovies, strong cheeses, and red wine.3,5,8
Grown in Italy’s northwestern-most region of Liguria, these olives are similar to Niçoise olives in shape and size. They’re harvested before the fruit is fully ripe, leading to a range of colors from dark green to light and medium brown, as well as a firmer exterior. Often packaged with herbs, spices, garlic, and citrus, Ligurian olives generally are aromatic and have a sweet and herbal flavor.3,5
These small, Italian olives are harvested ripe and range in color from dark purple to black. They also vary in texture depending on how they’re cured. Dry-cured Gaeta olives are wrinkled and chewy, whereas brine-cured Gaeta olives are plump and juicy. They have a mild flavor and usually are packed with herbs. Gaeta olives are delicious enjoyed on their own as table olives or added to salads and pasta dishes.3,5
Canned Black Olives
Canned black olives can be found in almost any supermarket, and, although they’re labeled “ripe,” they’re in fact green and semiripe olives. Once harvested, they’re lye-cured and treated with oxygen for seven days, after which they’re the rich black color familiar to consumers. Once artificially blackened, the olives are pitted and canned. Canned black olives are a favorite among kids (likely because of their mild flavor) and are perfect for storing in the pantry and adding to pizza, pasta dishes, nachos, and tapenade.9
Olive Health Benefits
Olives are a rich source of healthful monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, dietary fiber, and iron. Nutrition facts for olives vary depending on how they’re cured and processed. One hundred grams of canned black olives contains 105 kcal, 1 g protein, 10 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 6 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 735 mg sodium, and 3 g iron.10 Because olives are cured, they’re high in sodium, which is of concern for patients on low-sodium diets. When cooking with olives, remind patients to reduce the amount of salt they add to their meals to account for the added sodium.
— Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications. She’s the author of 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More. You can read more of her articles and find her recipes at JessicaLevinson.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @jlevinsonrd.
1. Rupp R. The bitter truth about olives. National Geographic website. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/food/the-plate/2016/07/olives--the-bitter-truth/. Published July 1, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2019.
2. All about olives. DeLallo website. https://www.delallo.com/blog/all-about-olives/. Published May 27, 2018. Accessed October 14, 2019.
3. Howard H. A beginner’s guide to olives: 14 varieties worth seeking out. Serious Eats website. https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/09/guide-to-olive-varieties.html. Updated March 6, 2019. Accessed October 15, 2019.
4. Manzanilla olives. DeLallo website. https://www.delallo.com/blog/manzanilla-olives/. Published August 30, 2018. Accessed October 16, 2019.
5. Filippone PT. Olive varieties and types. The Spruce Eats website. https://www.thespruceeats.com/types-of-olives-1807856. Updated October 1, 2019. Accessed October 15, 2019.
6. Picholine olives. DeLallo website. https://www.delallo.com/blog/picholine-olives/. Published August 29, 2018. Accessed October 16, 2019.
7. Calamata olives. DeLallo website. https://www.delallo.com/blog/calamata-olives/. Published August 30, 2018. Accessed October 15, 2019.
8. Coquillo (Niçoise style) olives. DeLallo website. https://www.delallo.com/blog/coquillo-nicoise-style-olives/. Published August 30, 2018. Accessed October 16, 2019.
9. From the farm to the table. California Ripe Olives website. http://calolive.org/our-story/from-the-farm-to-the-table/. Accessed October 16, 2019.
10. Olives, black. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/343670/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.