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Health Food of the month - Olives

September 2020

Bowl of olives
Olives can make an excellent snack

Previous Health Foods of the Month...





Diet & Supplements Index

With so much emphasis on healthy eating these days, it is good to know that one tasty snack and ingredient is reasonably good for us.

The humble olive is today more popular than ever, and the main harvest season is now about to take place. However, this doesn’t mean we can look forward to fresh olives arriving in the shops any day now. Raw olives are incredibly bitter thanks to their content of oleuropein. While you will not die of food poisoning from eating a raw olive, generally they are considered totally inedible because of this very bitter flavour.

The olives we find in the shops and online are generally cured to remove the oleuropein and there are several ways this is done.   They can be cured in natural brine, often just simple sea salt and water. This process can take from three to 12 months.  They can be washed in a lye solution (often a solution with sodium hydroxide) for eight to 12 hours which helps leech out the bitter oleuropein and phenoloic compounds. Then they are washed and then put into a brine for one to three months to complete the process. Less common is salt curing, when the olives are rolled in drums of salt before being rinsed and even the very rare air curing, when the olives are fermented by exposure to hot temperatures, perhaps the Greek sun.

The different colours of olives are generally due to their ripeness when they are picked; they begin green and then as they ripen they turn darker.  Colour can also be changed by oxidation when olives are put through a fermentation process; this turns the olive a deeper brown or black.

The flavour of olives varies tremendously depending on a huge range of factors, from where they were grown and the local climate to when it was picked and the curing process.

But whatever type of olives you choose, they can provide a number of really useful health benefits. For a start, they are a rich source of healthy monounsaturated fats; an essential part of a good diet. These fats can help lower harmful LDL cholesterol, raise the good HDL cholesterol and help to prevent heart disease and stroke.

Olives also contain a compound called oleocanthal which can help prevent a body from making inflammatory enzymes. This anti-inflammatory property works in the same way as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs helping to diminish pain and sensitivity. Interesting, the strongly flavoured olives from Tuscany have especially high levels of olecanthals.

Olives also contain a substantial amount of iron. This is a key factor in the formation of haemoglobin, a protein that helps carry oxygen around the body via the bloodstream. Iron also helps to build the enzymes responsible for regulating the immune function and cognitive development.

Olives are also a useful snack food for people with allergies - they are free of all wheat, soy, lactose and most of the other allergy-causing ingredients.

They are also fairly low in calories, with around five calories an olive, meaning a serving of 20 medium olives still comes in at only 100 calories.

However, there is a downside to olives - and that is sodium. Each olive naturally contains a large level of sodium. One large black olive for instance, contains around 32 milligrams of sodium; half a cup of green olives contains around 1,556 milligrams of sodium, or think around two thirds of a teaspoonful of salt.

The trick today is to seek out reduced sodium or low salt canned or jarred olives. They can now be found in many supermarkets and are a healthier option than traditional olives, while still offering all the key benefits.


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