What is better: olives or olive oil? Are olives healthier than extra virgin olive oil or the opposite?
This article makes a comparison between olives and olive oil composition, shows the similarities and differences and highlights that not all olives are the same, revealing the risks of lye or sodium hydroxide NaOH treated olives.
Extra virgin olive oil is the juice of smashed olives without any other added ingredients and processing. Extra virgin olive oil has in its composition mainly triacylglycerols (fats), polyphenols, squalene, tocopherols (vitamins), omega 3 and omega 6 acids, pigments and aromatic components.
The most important activities in olive oil are antioxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer as evident from a variety of studies. Olive oil is resistant to oxidation and it has a special bitter and pungent taste. These biological activities and individual taste are due to the presence of unique bioactive compounds in the olives, namely phenolics like oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, verbascoside and derivatives), tocopherols and carotenoids, amongst others.
Please note that in the olive press, the stone is smashed and pressed too. The olive stone is a rich source of bioactive compounds (prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer). These potentially valuable compounds are nuzhenide-oleoside, nuzhenide, salidroside, which are detected only in the olive seed.
Olive fruit’s composition includes water 50%, protein 1.6%, oil 22%, carbohydrate 19.1%, cellulose 5.8%, inorganic substances, phenolic compounds, pectin, organic acids, and pigments and salt because of curing.
Cellulose and pectin are fibers that are resistant to the action of digestive enzymes. Eating fiber increases the immune system in your gut, feeds the good probiotic bacteria there, keeps the digestive system healthy and eliminates the excess hormones, cholesterol, fat and toxins from the body.
- Olives contain the good fat, just as olive oil does;
- Olives also contain antioxidants and vitamins;
- Olives contain salt (sodium chloride) while olive oil does not;
- Olives contain carbohydrates and fibers while olive oil does not;
- Olive oil contains also bioactive substances from the seed.
The outcome to this moment is the following: both olives and olive oil have beneficial effects for health and should be consumed according to everybody’s preferences: as a snack or as an oil for salads, cooking etc. And this is what seems to be obvious and is promoted and taught.
Now let us get to the point and say the truth about most of the olives in the market.
Just as not olive oils are the same, not all olives are the same. Why? It is quite simple.
The probiotic compounds (the good bacteria) are the ones that make the difference for olives.
Fresh olives are not eatable because of their bitterness. Therefore, the olives need curing and fermentation occurs, and good bacteria are produced.
Olives curing is done using water and salt (brine) or by treating the olives with lye (sodium hydroxide – NaOH). The first option is a natural one, takes months and has higher cost of production. The second is fast, low cost, health risks.
The Spanish style of curing the olives consists of treating the fruit with lye to reduce the bitterness. After that, the olives are washed and placed in brine, where they undergo fermentation. Instead, in the Greek production, the natural or untreated olives (green or naturally black) are directly brined after picking. In the Californian-style, black olives do not necessarily require fermentation at all. They are treated directly with lye and oxidized, then washed, placed in brine, and packed in cans with heat-sterilization.
Recently, was published a study that highlighted the effect of sodium hydroxide treatment on the bacterial ecology of olives fermentation.
[…] Overall, NaOH (lye) modified the composition of the table olive ecosystem to a great extent and promoted a fermentation process that was different, in terms of bacterial species and strain. This evidence could allow us to speculate that the debittering process could influence the number of species present on the surface of olives and affect the biodiversity of the fermentation system. […] The effect of the NaOH treatment on the bacterial ecology of the olive surface was remarkable. The halophilic populations found in the untreated olives, were replaced by enterobacteria, which remained stable until the end of the fermentation in the treated olives, and this evidence was also confirmed in the brines at the beginning of the fermentation.
To make it clear: what is enterobacter?
Enterobacter infections can include bacteremia, lower respiratory tract infections, skin and soft-tissue infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), endocarditis, intra-abdominal infections, septic arthritis, osteomyelitis, CNS infections, and ophthalmic infections. Enterobacter infections can necessitate prolonged hospitalization, multiple and varied imaging studies and laboratory tests, various surgical and nonsurgical procedures, and powerful and expensive antimicrobial agents.
Going back to the study:
[…] highlighted relevant differences in the localization of Lactobacillus, the main genus of technological importance. Lactobacillus was revealed by sequencing only after 90 days of fermentation. However, Lactobacillus colonized the surface of the olives more in untreated than treated fermentations.
(Lactobaccilus is the positive bacteria with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.)
[…] Future studies should take into consideration the evidence reported here, and also try to match the evolution of the microbiota with the changes in sensory quality of the table olives in order to appropriately define the most suitable fermentation conditions to enhance the product quality while assuring its safety.
Conclusion: olives have great health effects only if cured in brine and of course, if you do not have restriction for salt. Olives cured in the natural way have similar composition to extra virgin olive oil with extra compounds like fibers and good bacteria. Olives treated with lye are not just of lower quality, but the opposite: they present health risks.
We all want good products in good price, the producers want profits and struggle to lower the prices by lowering the costs of production. We get the good price. The producers get the profits. Our health is in risk.
If a good extra virgin olive oil is hard to find, olives naturally cured in brine are almost a myth. And what makes it even worse, for decades now, the consumers have learned to make the wrong choices regarding olives.
Safe olives are always the Greek style olives with stone. Pitted and stuffed olives, no matter the origin are treated with sodium hydroxide (another preference of the consumers to which the producers could not answer in a natural way – it is just impossible to keep the pulp strong without the stone).
Olives or olive oil? Make your choice and make it right.