The olive (Olea europaea, meaning "Oil from/of Europe") is a species of small tree in the family Oleaceae, native to the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean Basin as well as the Levant, northern Saudi Arabia, northern Iraq, and northern Iran at the south of the Caspian Sea.
Its fruit, also called the olive, is of major agricultural importance in the Mediterranean region as the source of olive oil. The tree and its fruit give its name to the plant family, which also includes species such as lilacs, jasmine, Forsythia and the true ash trees (Fraxinus). The word derives from Latin ŏlīva("olive fruit", "olive tree"; "olive oil" is ŏlĕum) which is cognate with the Greek ἐλαία (elaía, "olive fruit", "olive tree") and ἔλαιον (élaion, "olive oil"). The oldest attested forms of the latter two words in Greek are respectively the Mycenaean, e-ra-wa, e-ra-wo and e-rai-wo, written in the Linear B syllabic script. The word "oil" in multiple languages ultimately derives from the name of this tree and its fruit.
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.
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, 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. In the United States, where most olives come from California, olives are typically green in color, picked in an unripe state, lye-cured, and then exposed to air as a way of triggering oxidation and conversion to a black outer color. Water curing, brine curing, and lye curing are the most common treatment processes for olives, and each of these treatments can affect the color and composition of the olives.
What's New and Beneficial About Olives
- 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. While there are trade-offs that occur during olive ripening and olive curing—for example, decreased oleuropein with advanced stages of ripening yet increased amounts of anthocyanins—it's impossible to rule out any single type of olive as being unworthy of consideration as a uniquely health-supportive food, particularly in terms of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- 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.