Even though more attention has been sometimes been given to their delicious oil than their whole food delights, olives are one of the world's most widely enjoyed foods.
Technically classified as fruits of the Olea europea tree (an amazing tree that typically lives for hundreds of years) we commonly think about olives not as fruit but as a zesty vegetable that can be added are harvested in September but available year round to make a zesty addition to salads, meat and poultry dishes and, of course, pizza.
In Bangladesh, olives are mostly available from November to February and it is a very common and popular practice to make Achaar (Achaar, a word for pickles in Indo-Aryan languages in the Indian subcontinent) with olives which can be preserved all around the year.
Olives are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they are good for the heart, and may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. The healthy fats in olives are extracted to produce extra virgin olive oil, one of the key components of the incredibly healthy Mediterranean diet.
Olives are too bitter to be eaten right off the tree and must be cured to reduce their intrinsic bitterness. Processing methods vary with the olive variety, the region where they are cultivated, and the desired taste, texture and color. Some olives are picked unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree.
The color of an olive is not necessarily related to its state of maturity. Many olives start off green and turn black when fully ripe. However, some olives start off green and remain green when fully ripe, while others start of black and remain black.
Dozens of health-protective nutrients have been identified in olives, and recent studies have taken a very close look at olive varieties, olive processing, and changes that take place in olive nutrients.
The overall conclusion from these studies is exciting for anyone who loves olives of all varieties. Greek-style black olives, Spanish-style green olives, Kalamata-style olives, and many different methods of olive preparation provide us with valuable amounts of many different antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Hydroxytyrosol, an olive phytonutrient that has long been linked to cancer prevention, is now regarded as having the potential to help us prevent bone loss as well.
Several recent laboratory animal studies have found increased depositing of calcium in bone and decreased loss of total bone mass following consumption of this olive phytonutrient (as well as oleuropein, another key phytonutrient found in olives). These findings are fascinating, since consumption of a Mediterranean Diet has long been associated with decreased risk of osteoporosis, and olives often find themselves on center stage in Mediterranean Diet studies.
In traditional herbal medicine practices, preparations from olives and olive leaves have often been used in treatment of inflammatory problems, including allergy-related inflammation. New research may help explain how olives work to provide us with anti-inflammatory benefits, especially during circumstances involving allergy.
Olive extracts have now been shown to function as anti-histamines at a cellular level. By blocking special histamine receptors (called H1 receptors), unique components in olive extracts may help to lessen a cell's histamine response. Because histamine is a molecule that can get overproduced in allergy-related conditions and can be a key player in the inflammatory process, it's likely that the anti-inflammatory benefits we get from olives involve this anti-histamine pathway. It's also possible that olives may have a special role to play as part of an overall anti-allergenic diet.
From a botanical standpoint, olives belong to a very special group of fruits called drupes. Drupes are fruits that have a pit or stone at their core and this pit is surrounded by a larger fleshy portion called the pericarp. There are literally hundreds of varieties of olive trees, but all of them belong in the same scientific category of Olea europea. "
Olea" is the Latin word for "oil," and reflects the high oil content of this food. Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, as well as different parts of Asia and Africa.
Their Mediterranean origins are highlighted in their species name, europea, since countries bordering the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea are typically considered as parts of southern Europe.
Olive trees can have remarkable longevity. Most live to an age of several hundred years, and in at least one case, a carbon-dated world record for an olive tree stands at 2,000 years! Although olive trees may produce more olives in lowland terrain, they are comfortable growing in mountainous, rocky conditions and often thrive along the hillsides of Spain, Italy and Greece.