This article was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated.
During my honeymoon to Greece I had the chance to visit the oldest-known olive oil tree in the world. Most olive trees can live more than 500 years, but this one is at least 2,000 years old! Given that Greeks consume 12.8 kilograms of olive oil per year — compared to four kilograms in North America — it got me thinking about the importance of these trees to their daily life. Greece’s increased consumption of this healthy fat shows why the Mediterranean diet has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and lowered cancer risk for those who follow it.
Let’s take a closer look at five benefits of adding olives and olive oil to your diet:
1. They protect against colon, breast and skin cancer
Olives and olive oil contain an abundance of phenolic antioxidants as well as the anti-cancer compounds squalene and terpenoid. They also contain high levels of the monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid, which reduces excessive inflammation.
2. Olive oil is good for your heart
Olive oil contains biophenols, which suppress the oxidization of LDL (or “bad cholesterol”) which has been shown to play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease. High levels of LDL in the blood amplify oxidative stress which hardens the arterial walls (called atherosclerosis). The biophenols in olives reduce blood pressure, therefore reducing the development of arterial plaque as well.
3. They work to reduce pain
Olives contain a compound called oleocanthal that has strong anti-inflammatory properties, mimicking the action of ibuprofen. Olive oil naturally reduces the pain of chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and can be added to a daily diet to aid in pain reduction.
4. Olives and olive oil may protect against ulcers
The antimicrobial properties in olives and olive oil may help to combat the bacteria responsible for causing stomach ulcers. Studies have shown their high levels of polyphenols protect against eight strains of ulcer-causing bacteria, three of which are resistant to some antibiotics.
5. Eating olives will help to boost your iron intake
Olives contain a substantial amount of iron, a key factor in the formation of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen throughout the body via the bloodstream. Iron also helps to build the enzymes responsible for regulating immune function and cognitive development.
In order to properly reap these health benefits, you need to make sure the olive oil you’re buying is real. Often times olive oil can be mixed with lower grade oils like soy or canola oil and sold for the same price. To ensure the oil you buy is the highest quality, and most healthful, follow these tips:
1. Buy certified organic oil
If possible, try to find one that has paperwork to track the oil production from field to table.
2. Get to know what olive oil really tastes like
Often light olive oil doesn’t meet the standards of real extra virgin olive oil. Real extra virgin has a peppery and fruity taste. If you can’t taste the olives, you may have deodorized, cheap oil that could be soy or canola with some green colour added. The real deal is more expensive but worth the health benefits.
3. Buy oil packed in dark glass
The real stuff degrades in heat and light, so avoid the clear plastic bottles that could be leaching plastic into your next meal!
Once you’ve got your quality olive oil, and a selection of your favourite olives, try this lentil tapenade recipe:
2 cups (500 mL) lentils, well rinsed and drained
1 cup (250 mL) pitted olives (kalamata are a great choice)
1/4 cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (125 mL) fresh parsley or coriander, chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) lemon zest
3 tbsp (45 mL) lemon juice
1. In a food processor, purée lentils, olives, olive oil, and garlic. Add parsley, lemon juice, and zest.
2. Pulse, using on-off turns, until combined.
3. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
Yield: Makes 3 cups (750 mL). Will keep for a week in the fridge.
Julie Daniluk hosts Healthy Gourmet, a reality cooking show that highlights the ongoing battle between taste and nutrition. Her book, Meals That Heal Inflammation helps people enjoy allergy-free foods that taste great and assist the body in the healing process.