Olive oil is widely recognized as being part of a healthy Mediterranean diet, but what about the actual fruit that the oil is extracted from? It turns out that olives themselves are full of healthy nutrients and benefits. Yes, olives are classified as the fruit of the Olea europea tree, although most of us think of them as salty and savory vegetables. Recent research indicates that olives of many different varieties have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and are also a good source of monounsaturated fats, fiber, calcium, copper, and iron.
Olives are high in monounsaturated fats, which are fat molecules that have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. Monounsaturated fats are normally found in plant oils, and are usually liquid at room temperature, but solidify when chilled. Most of the fat in olives in oleic acid, which is important in enabling wound healing, and is thought to improve inflammatory and autoimmune diseases and cancer. Diets high in monounsaturated fats are associated with a decrease in blood cholesterol levels, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and the LDL to HDL ratio, therefore lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Olive are a great source of various antioxidants, including some unique compounds. This fruit makes a good source of vitamin E, which is an important antioxidant vitamin that protects cells from oxidative damage. Olives also contain smaller amounts of other antioxidant minerals like selenium and zinc. Oleuropein is an antioxidant phytonutrient that is only found in olives. Research shows that it appears to decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, scavenge nitric oxide, which is a molecule that can cause oxidative stress, and lower other markers of oxidative stress in the body. Consumption of olives may also increase blood levels of glutathione, which is an important antioxidant in the body.
Protection against Cancer and Bone Loss
Because olives have anti-inflammatory properties and are high in antioxidants, they automatically provide you with protection against cancer. Inflammation and chronic oxidative stress have been shown to be factors in cancer development. Many of the phytonutrients and compounds in olive oil have been identified as effective in combating cancer cells. Hydroxytyrosol is a phytonutrient in olives that is not only associated with cancer prevention, but also with prevention of bone loss. Consumption of oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol were found to increase the deposit of calcium in bone and decrease the total bone loss of bone mass. Olives and olive oil are a major component of the heart healthy Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a decreased risk of osteoporosis.
Another health benefit of olives is improved skin condition. Components of olives, including oleuropein, have an antioxidant effect on the skin. Studies suggest that oleuropein may act as a protectant and have preventative effects on damage to skin by UVB rays.
Anti-Microbial and Anti-Viral Properties
Studies show that compounds in olives have antimicrobial properties and act against different types of bacteria. These compounds damage potentially harmful bacterial membrane or disrupt bacterial cell processes. Oleuropein is one of the compounds in olives that is able to inhibit the development and production of different types of unfriendly bacteria including e.coli and salmonella. Recent studies have also shown that oleuropein has antiviral properties and acts against herpes mononucleosis, hepatitis virus, rotavirus, and others, providing health benefits for people who may be fighting this viruses.
Phytonutrients in olives are shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and can act as anti-histamines in cells. Whole olive extracts have been shown in studies to prevent unwanted inflammation (inflammation is an important process in the body, but chronic inflammation is harmful to the body). Oleuropein, which is the most widely studied phytonutrient found in olives, has been shown to decrease the activity of an enzyme whose over-activity causes inflammation. In patients with heart problems, the polyphenols in olives have been shown to lower serum levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a blood measurement that assesses chronic inflammation in the body.
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