Health Benefits of Olives and Olive Oil

Which Olive Oil is Best and What Does Extra Virgin Olive Oil Mean?

Health Benefits of Olives and Olive Oil

By Habeeb Salloum – In the world of mythology, the olive tree is supposed to have been first grown in the Garden of Eden. More realistically, according to historians, it has been cultivated along the Syrian coast since 4,000 BC and since that time it has been one of the most useful plants in the world — its products employed in a myriad of ways. In ancient times, a single olive tree provided a family with a year-round supply of food, oil for healing, fuel for cooking, and wood for housing, furniture, and jewelry. Hence, for millennia, it was a symbol of wealth, stability, and the tranquillity of a self-sufficient farm living, not to mention the amazing health benefits of olives and olive oil.

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena created the olive tree to win a dispute with Poseidon, the god of the sea. The Bible makes at least 140 references to olives and their oil. In the story of Noah, the dove that heralds the new era after the deluge appears carrying an olive branch. In the Qur`an, the olive, called a Blessed Tree, has sacred associations. Even today its mystical lure continues. An olive branch, a token of peace since Biblical times, graces the flag of the United Nations.

In our time, the olive tree remains a very valued plant to the farmers of the Mediterranean countries, accounting for 98 percent of the olives grown in the world. Worldwide, Spain is the largest producer of olives, generating 50 percent of the European production. Its 160 million trees produce around 800,000 tons of olive oil — a liquid gold that is the lifeblood of that country. Italy is the second largest producer, followed by Italy, Greece, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey. Beyond the Mediterranean, olives are grown in parts of Australia, California and South America.

Olives are the fruit of an evergreen tree with small greenish-silvery leaves that bear clusters of fragrant white flowers. The plant, started from a cutting, grows in height from 10 to 40 feet and begins to bear fruit when four to eight years old. It takes about 15 years to fully mature but will bear fruit for hundreds of years. Some trees in the eastern Mediterranean are believed to be over 2,000 years old.

The olives are harvested by hand or by striking the tree with long sticks to bring the fruit down to the ground. They come in dozens of shapes and colors, varying in size from half an inch to two inches. About 40 percent are picked green before they mature; the remainder are harvested as they ripen in various shades ranging from purple-blue to black, at which time they reach their maximum oil content — 220.45 lbs. olives will produce 55.12 lbs. oil.

The oil comes in at least five grades. The top is the extra-virgin, which is obtained from pressed green olives that are picked by hand. Virgin comes from the first pressing of black olives; refined from the second pressing; pure, a mixture of virgin and refined; and sulphide, extracted with solvents from the third pressing.

Olives and their oil are consumed as a food, especially by people living in countries that border the Mediterranean. However, despite the fact that olives are cultivated principally for the table, one of the chief health benefits of olives is their oil, which has always been employed as a medicine.

In the times of the prophets, it was believed that olive oil would cure every malady except the “illness” of death. There is a legend that Adam, suffering in pain, complained to God who sent Gabriel down from heaven with an olive tree. He presented it to Adam, telling him to plant it, then to pick the fruit and extract the oil, using it whenever he had pain—assuring him that it would cure all ills.

Today’s Middle Eastern farmers believe that if they drink half a cup of olive oil before breakfast, it will clear their system and they will live a long life free from disease. Their cure for an infected ear is a little heated olive oil dropped into the ear in a number of doses, and for sore muscles, the remedy is a massage of olive oil. In these countries, many people even maintain, as had their ancestors in ancient times, that olive oil is a powerful sexual stimulant.

And they have a point. There are numerous health benefits of olives. Dried olives contain 51.90 percent fat, 30.07 percent water, 10.45 percent carbohydrates, 5.24 percent protein, and 2.33 percent mineral matter, and are exceptionally rich in potassium. Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat, has the ability to reduce the LDL (bad) cholesterol without reducing the HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood.

The health benefits of olives in the energy-giving department are more than that contained in any other fruit or vegetable, and the calcium content is greater than in other fruit, vegetables, fish, shellfish or cockle-fish. Fresh cow milk contains the same quantity of calcium as olives, but olives have more vitamin A than that contained in milk. Hence, olives are an excellent food for pathological cases that require intensified quantities of calcium.

Scientifically, even though olive oil will not make a sick person well, it may help keep one from becoming sick. The health benefits of olive oil are excellent for sufferers from debility or those who are under-weight. Drunk pure, two ounces per day makes a superb laxative. It’s a soothing home remedy for bug bites, itching, and bruises, the oil also contains vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that plays a role in reducing the risk of cancer and heart diseases. This has led the World Health Organization to recommend olive oil for cardiovascular diseases and to promote bone growth.

The last pressing of the oil is often utilized in the manufacture of soap while virgin olive oil is employed as a hair dressing. There is no oil as good for the skin. Olive oil is easily absorbed into the subcutaneous layers, keeping the skin supple and the body flexible and pliant. You can even learn how to make olive oil soap at home to take advantage of the health benefits of olive oil.

In ancient Greece pure olive oil was a highly prized luxury for anointing the body. Mediterranean beauties have, through the ages, employed undiluted olive oil as a massage ingredient to soften their delicate skin and to enhance their flowing black tresses, which have inspired many a romantic Arab and Latin poet. It is believed that Cleopatra always had an olive oil massage before her trysts with Caesar and Anthony.

At times, after the olives are crushed to produce the oil, the pulverized pits are then made into firebricks, which make excellent fuel material. Many family meals in the Mediterranean basin are cooked over the glowing embers of olive-pit bricks. Also, the trimmed dead branches of the trees are another source of cooking material, which the olive tree adds to the meager energy resources of the Mediterranean peasant farmers.

In the Middle East, the many fine pieces of furniture in the peasants’ homes which have been passed down from family to family through the ages, and the beautiful artifices that for hundreds of years have helped keep the tourist industry alive, are made from the wood of the olive tree. Although not now as prevalent as in ancient times, necklaces made from the polished pits of the olives adorn the necks of many maidens, especially tourists from the West coming to enjoy the exotic Mediterranean lands.

Nevertheless, it is as a food that olives reach their epitome of usefulness. Their highly digestible oil can be drizzled on toast and ripe tomatoes or brushed on grilling chicken or fish. The oil is employed in all types of cooking and in countless salad dressings, adding an appetizing gusto to food. Olive oil keeps well but should be stored in opaque containers. When exposed to sunlight it becomes rancid and develops an offensive odor.

As to olives themselves, they are eaten as appetizers, form part of the ingredients in many dishes, and are often utilized for decoration. No breakfast in Middle Eastern countries is complete without at least one type of olive being served, and no morning, afternoon or evening snack is usually offered without a few types of this ancient vegetable-fruit.

In the Mediterranean countries, olives are usually pickled in brine or oil, but there are many varieties of olives and the type of pickling is purely a matter of taste. Green ones are picked unripe and usually pickled in brine; black ones are left to ripen on the tree and are often preserved in oil, but may also be pickled in brine. Both types can be stuffed with almonds, pimentos or anchovies; or embellished with hot pepper, lemon peel, sumac, thyme and other herbs or spices.

The pickled olives are usually sold in bulk in food markets throughout most of the world. Unlike the tasteless canned olives on many North American supermarket shelves, these prepared olives are very tasty, adding a zesty flavor to any dish in which they are used as an ingredient. Millions count on the health benefits of olives today, as they have for a millennia, as a nourishing addition to their diet.


In the Middle East, this is a preferred way of flavoring olives.

1 lb. black olives, washed
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons sumac (found in Middle Eastern stores)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
1/2 tablespoons salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Combine all ingredients, place in a covered jar and top with water. Serve as needed, but stir olives before each serving.


Makes about 3/4 cup

Both olives and garlic are enjoyed, espe-cially in sauces, throughout the eastern Arab lands. This simple garlic sauce called taratoor is a common dish of the peasants in Syria and Lebanon. It is used as a condiment with all types of foods.

2 heads of garlic, peeled
Salt to taste
1/3 cup olive
1/3 cup lemon juice

Place all ingredients in a blender; purée until creamy. Place in a jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid, then refrigerate until ready to use.


Serves 4
Very tasty, this dish is common in many Mediterranean lands.

Olive oil for frying
4 slices of garlic bread
4 medium tomatoes, sliced
4 small cucumbers, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a frying pan; simmer bread for a moment. Drain on paper towels; place on 4 plates. Place tomatoes and cucumber evenly over top, sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve.


Serves 8 to 12

2 cups green olives, pitted and washed to remove the salt
4 tablespoons tahini (crushed sesame seeds)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 small tomato, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil

Place all ingredients except tomatoes and olive oil in a blender; blend until smooth.

Spread on a serving platter; refrigerate for 1 hour. Garnish with tomato pieces; sprinkle with oil and serve.


Serves about 6

2 medium-sized carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
1/2 head lettuce, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup pitted black olives, sliced in half
1 lemon and olive oil salad dressing recipe (see below)

Place carrots, lettuce, and olives in a salad bowl; thoroughly mix. Pour in salad dressing, toss and serve.


Serves 6 to 8

This is the traditional salad dressing of the Middle East. At times, vinegar is substituted for the lemon juice.

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste

Thoroughly combine all ingredients, stir and pour over salad. Toss and immediately serve.


Serves 4

The following Moroccan dish makes an unusual and vividly colored salad that also can be served as an appetizer.

1/2 cup black olives, pitted and halved
4 large oranges, peeled, sectioned, and cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Pinch cayenne

Combine olives and oranges in a salad bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour. Thoroughly mix cumin and cayenne in a separate dish; set aside. Just before serving, sprinkle cumin-cayenne combination over olive-orange mixture and toss.


Serves about 6

According to E. Sroumillo in The Tastes of Travel, this soup, typical of Malaga, was possibly the original Moorish version of gazpacho.

1/4 loaf white bread, crust removed
3/4 cup blanched pulverized almonds
6 cloves garlic, crushed
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups water
3/4 lb. seedless white grapes

Place bread in a bowl and cover with water and allow to stand for 2 minutes. With hands, squeeze the water out. Place the squeezed bread and the remaining ingredients except the grapes in a food processor; process for a minute. Transfer to a serving bowl, chill in a refrigerator for at least 12 hours. Stir; garnish with the grapes and serve.


Serves about 8

In all the Arab countries, olive oil has been, through the centuries, the most commonly used medium of cooking. Although the cheaper vegetable oils have made inroads into the lands of olives, olive oil is still the most important ingredient used to cook a daily meal.

2 medium onions, chopped
½  cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
4 cups finely chopped zucchini
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried basil
3 eggs

Heat oil in a saucepan; sauté onions until they begin to brown. Add garlic, zucchini, and sauté for 10 minutes or until zucchini is cooked. Stir in tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil, simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring a few times. Break in eggs; stir-fry for few more minutes. Serve hot.


Serves about 6

In North Africa, the choice is not limited to black and green olives; olives vary in color and type of curing. Particularly favored are ripe black olives that have been cured in salt and then dried, or pale grey-green ones cured in oil and a little salt. The latter are frequently combined with lemon and employed in chicken dishes as in the following recipe:

5 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-sized chicken, cut into serving pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 lemon, cut lengthwise into quarters and the seeds removed
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup small green or grey-green olives

In a frying pan, heat oil over medium/high heat, fry chicken, turning frequently, until the pieces begin to brown. Drain chicken pieces on paper towels and set aside.

Pour out fat from frying pan, except for 4 tablespoons. Add onions and sauté until light brown. Add paprika, ginger, turmeric, salt, pepper, lemon, water, and chicken. Stir, bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, simmer covered for about 1/2 hour or until the chicken is tender, adding a little more water if necessary. Add olives, cover and simmer for 3 minutes.

Arrange chicken pieces on a platter; place the lemon quarters and olives in a ring around them. Pour sauce over chicken, serve hot.


Serves 6 to 8

This is a delightful Moroccan dish whose taste and texture are smooth and unforgettable.

4 to 5 lbs. fresh whitefish, scaled and cleaned
1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander
1 medium head of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup tomato juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons paprika
5 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
4 medium potatoes, thinly sliced
4 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup water
1/2 cup pimento stuffed olives

Place fish in an oiled roasting pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine coriander, garlic, and salt, lemon juice, tomato juice, cayenne and paprika, set aside.

Stuff fish with half the mixture, spread remaining half over fish. Arrange tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots over fish. Pour oil and water evenly over vegetables. Bake covered in a 350°F preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, spread olives over fish. Return to oven and bake uncovered for an additional 10 minutes.

Serve fish hot with juices and vegetables.

Note: In North America, the following are the main types of olives sold and their origin:
• Ascona-Cucco, Italy
• Azeradj, Algeria
• Carrasquenha, Portugal
• Kalamata, Greece
• Manzanilla and Sevillana, Spain
• Mission, California
• Verdial, Australia

Which health benefits of olives interest you most?

Originally published in the May/June 2008 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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