What Are Olives Good For?

Illustrious Olives
Botanical name: Olea europea

Olives Nutrition Facts

One of the most frequently asked questions about olives is the difference between black and green varieties. Green olives are picked before they're ripe, and black olives are generally picked at peak ripeness.1

But don’t be tempted to pick one off the tree — when freshly harvested, olives have a horrible, bitter flavor. This is thanks to the phenolic compound oleuropein, which acts to protect the plant from being eaten by birds.2

As a result, most olives are cured (salted, pickled or soaked in brine, plain salt, water or in a strong lye solution) before being eaten. The texture and color depends on the length of time they're cured, while the taste depends on the ingredients, method and variety.3

There are hundreds of varieties grown worldwide, some made for olive oil production, while others are grown as table olives.4 In the U.S., olives are mainly grown in California, accounting for 95% of the country’s olive production. Two varieties grown in this state are Manzanillo and Sevillano.5

The pit at the center makes an olive a "drupe,"6 placing them in the stone fruit category.7 Native to Mediterranean regions, as well as in some areas of Africa and Asia,8 olive trees can live for hundreds of years,9 and can thrive in poor and rocky areas.10

Green olives are the ones most often seen on egg salad and dropped into martinis, while the black variety is usually used in dishes like salads, pastas and pizzas.11

Health Benefits of Olives

Olives are as unique as they are extraordinary. They're loaded with free radical-zapping polyphenols that act as antioxidants12 to help protect against different diseases, including heart disease, stroke, brain disease and cancer.13 Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) is another important antioxidant nutrient in olives, along with essential minerals like magnesium and zinc.14

Interestingly, the George Mateljan Foundation notes that the vitamin E content of olives may spike in the early stages of ripening, just as the phenolic antioxidants are beginning to lower. As olives continue to ripen, this can be reversed, which may simply be nature's way of ensuring that olives contain beneficial phytonutrients.15

One of these nutrients is called hydroxytyrosol, which aids in reducing the risk of osteoporosis and tumor growth.16 Used in traditional folk medicine against pain,17 medical science shows a strong link between ingesting olives or olive oil and helping ease pain.18 Oleuropein, a compound only found in olives, helps decrease the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol by scavenging nitric oxide, a reactive oxygen-containing molecule. This lowers the markers of oxidative stress, which means the cells don't have enough protection from potential oxygen damage.19 Eating foods such as olives that contain antioxidants may help change that.

Olives contain very small amounts of sugar (only 0.54 grams per 100-gram serving), but due to the curing process, one olive equals 42 milligrams of sodium. While that sounds rather alarming, consider that there's more salt in a 28-gram serving of cornflakes than five olives.20

It's true that olives contain a certain amount of fat, but it's the type that's important. The food industry has only recently taken a second look at the decades-long war on fat in foods, because some fats — saturated fats, in particular — are absolutely essential to a healthy body.21 The majority of the fat in olives and olive oil, for instance, is oleic acid.22 Monounsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid have been linked to reduced blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk.23 For more on olives’ nutrition facts, check out the table below.24

Olives Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), pickled, bottled, green
  Amt. Per
% Daily
Calories 145  
Calories from Fat 128  
Total Fat 15.32 g  
Saturated Fat 2.02 g  
Trans Fat    
Cholesterol 0 mg  
Sodium 1556 mg  
Total Carbohydrates 3.84 g  
Dietary Fiber 3.3 g  
Sugar 0.54 g  
Protein 1.03 g  
Vitamin A 20 µg Vitamin E 3.81 mg
Calcium 52 mg Iron 0.49 mg

Studies on Olives

A study was undertaken to determine differences in oxidative damage between two groups of females with metabolic syndrome (having a high risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease). One group was assigned the Mediterranean diet (referred to as MedDiet), but controlled to include either additional amounts of extra virgin olive oil for their families (1 liter per week), or an additional amount of nuts (30 grams per day) for their families. The second test group was placed on a low-fat diet.

After one year, each subject's urine was analyzed to compare free radical and DNA damage, with results showing significantly less oxidative and DNA damage in the MedDiet groups. The results provided scientists enough evidence to recommend the traditional MedDiet, with increased virgin olive oil and nut intake, as opposed to a low-fat diet as a useful tool in managing metabolic syndrome.25

A similar diet study exploring the effects of the Mediterranean diet on bone mineral density was done, involving pre-menopausal and postmenopausal women. The results indicated that eating meals based on Mediterranean diet patterns may be useful in lowering the risk of osteoporosis in women.26

Olive Healthy Recipes:
Arugula, Asparagus and Olive Salad With Toasted Pine Nuts

Olives Healthy Recipes


3 bunches arugula or spinach

2½ cups asparagus, trimmed and
cut into 1–inch pieces

1 cup Kalamata olives
(or any other Greek olive)

½ cup toasted pine nuts


½ cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Juice of 1 lemon



  1. Quickly blanch asparagus and set aside.
  2. Deseed the olives by cutting down the center lengthwise.
  3. Combine the arugula, asparagus, and olives in a bowl.
  4. Roast the pine nuts in a shallow pan at 325 degrees Fahrenheit until brown.
  5. Whisk the dressing together, pour over salad and top with pine nuts.

This recipe makes four servings.
(From “Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type” by Dr. Mercola)

Olive Fun Facts

In 1917, Spain held the title as the largest olive and olive oil producer in the world.27 Over a hundred years later, it still holds that distinction with 5.2 million metric tons of olives produced per year. Italy is second with 3.2 million tons, followed by Greece, Turkey and Tunisia.28


Olives are a salty and satisfying snack coupled with cheese, crackers, fruit or other light fare, and a wonderful addition to salads. Their nutritional aspects go far beyond what you might expect, discovered centuries ago throughout Mediterranean regions like the Aegean region and the Strait of Gibraltar, places where the olive tree first grew.29
Scientists now know it's the phytonutrients and antioxidants found in olives (such as hydroxytyrosol) that can may help protect against disease like tumor growth.30

Healthy fats in olives, such as oleic acid, linoleic acid and linolenic acid are linked to higher energy expenditure, as well as reduced blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk.31,32 Oleuropein, found only in olives, helps scavenge nitric oxide.33 These and other nutritional attributes in olives make them an exceptional addition to your diet.