Olives are one of the oldest foods around and have found their way into a number of cooking uses: in salads, as a tasty garnish to pasta or main courses, as a pizza topping, or just by themselves as a snack. For the most part, olives are a healthful food, containing a good number of nutrients and healthy monounsaturated fats that contribute to cell health. They also are high in sodium, however, so like most foods, they're best eaten with a little moderation.
Olives have been a dietary staple since ancient times, bearing mention in the Bible, and included in art and history from the Greek and Egyptian cultures. While they have been grown in California for several hundreds of years as well as South Africa and South America, their primary source continues to be the Mediterranean region: Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Olives are far too bitter to be eaten in their natural state and require processing before they are edible. The colour of the olive depends on their ripeness, from the unripe green to the fully ripe black, as well as the processing method used for them.
Olives contain high amounts of monounsaturated fat and sodium, and moderately high amounts vitamin E, iron, copper and dietary fibre. One cup of olives--a little more than 130 grams--contains 155 calories, about 130 of which come from fat. The serving contains about 10 grams of monounsaturated fat, about 22 per cent of the recommended daily allowance. A one-cup serving contains 4.44 milligrams of iron, about a quarter of the recommended daily intake, and about 17 per cent of the daily recommended copper intake, 0.34 milligrams. The serving provides 4.3 grams of dietary fibre, about 17 per cent of what's recommended in a day, and 4.03 milligrams of vitamin E, about 20 per cent of what's needed daily. Olives also contain small amounts of other nutrients, including protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine and methionine.
The nutrients in olives provide a number of health benefits. The high levels of monounsaturated fat, which is sturdier than polyunsaturated fats, helps boost the strength of the body's cell outer membranes. The protection, along with the vitamin E and other antioxidants in olives, lowers the risk of cell damage and inflation. Stable cells can help prevent against a number of conditions, including cancer, heart attacks, strokes and gastrointestinal disorders. It also can help control conditions like asthma, arthritis and hot flushes brought on by menopause. Iron and copper, meanwhile, are necessary for the health of the blood and liver. Dietary fibre helps promote digestive health as well as lower cholesterol.
Despite their benefits, the high sodium content of olives can be trouble for those on low-sodium diets. High levels of sodium in the body can cause high blood pressure and several other health problems. Some brine types used to prepare olives contain higher sodium levels than others, so always check nutrition labels to be sure. Generally, canned black olives contain the highest sodium levels. They are available in low-sodium varieties, and cooks also can cut down on their sodium content by draining them of their juice and washing them off with fresh water. In addition, eating a large amount of olives on an empty stomach will cause nausea.
Although all the various colours of olives are basically the same vegetable in different stages of ripeness, not all olives are created equal when it comes to nutritional value. Ripe, black olives are the healthiest, particularly those cured in water or with sea salt. Green, unripe olives do not have the same level of mineral content and also might be treated with lye. Canned black olives, beside the high sodium content, also lack the same nutritional punch as the jarred variety. Canned olives, in many cases, were not ripened naturally and instead got their dark colour from additives used during the canning process.
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