Mediterranean Superfood: Olives

By Russell H. Greenfield, MD Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine

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Olive Varieties

Supermarkets carry a number of different varieties of olives. Most people are familiar with green and black olives; the main differences between the two are the added ripeness or oxidation of black olives, and the ways they are cured to remove a potentially health-promoting, but very bitter-tasting, compound called oleuropein (green olives are often treated with lye while black olives are cured in brine). Kalamata olives come from the Kalamata region of Greece and are typically cured in water. Generally speaking, studies suggest that black olives are higher in health-promoting phenols and antioxidant activity than green varieties.

Olive Leaf Extract

An extract taken from olive leaves that contains the antioxidant compound oleuropein, which is typically removed from olives through curing, has also been studied for its potential therapeutic benefits. Very preliminary data suggest the extract provides a blood pressure lowering effect that may approximate that seen with the use of low-dose prescription blood pressure medication. An additional benefit of olive leaf extract may be mild lowering of LDL cholesterol levels.

It is still too early to recommend the use of olive leaf extract for the treatment of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but some people choose to take it under a physician’s supervision, often starting with a conservative dose of 400-500 mg a day.

Dietary Recommendations

A traditional Mediterranean-style diet calls for eating about 8-10 olives or ingesting 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, either by dipping bread in it or preparing meals at low heat with the oil, each day.

Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed, least acidic, best tasting, and likely most healthy choice when it comes to olive oil, but it can be pricey. Look for varieties that are cold pressed and organic, and specifically seek out those that are certified by the International Olive Oil Association or the California Olive Oil Council. High-quality extra virgin olive oil possesses a pleasant aroma, a deep green hue, and a delicious taste, often with a hint of peppery bitterness.

Olives provide added proof that good things come in small packages. Realistically, you don’t have to or may not be able to eat 8-10 olives each day or take a swig of olive oil to be healthy. However, occasionally snacking on olives and making high-quality extra virgin olive oil the primary oil in your kitchen can help support the dietary component of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Russell H. Greenfield, MD

Article written by Russell H. Greenfield, MD
Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine