Keen Cuisine: Olives—An Olympian Edible

Hail to the Greeks. Olives serve up much of the magic of the Mediterranean diet.

By Courtney Hutchison, published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Whether floating cheekily in your martini or perking up your salad, the olive is a multitalented fruit that first appeared in Asia Minor over 6,000 years ago. Olea europaea served as staple food, sacred offering, and medical ointment to ancient Mediterraneans. Its oil, thought to proffer youth, purity, and vitality, perfumed the wrists of Cleopatra; anointed the heads of priests, emperors, and Olympians; and salved the sore muscles of gladiators. Today, interest in the olive also goes well beyond the culinary: Modern research links the fruit, rich in the polyphenol antioxidant hydroxytyrosol, to brain health. By protecting neurons from oxidative stress, the antioxidant slows cell death and can lower the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and other dementias.

  • Only extra virgin oil fully retains the olive's health-giving nutrients, so choose it over virgin or "pure" oil varieties. Generally, the greener the oil, the richer it is in polyphenols. Store it in a cool, dark place, tightly sealed.
  • Olives are rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that combats arterial buildup and has been shown to reduce the incidences of heart disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer.
  • The ability of olive oil to deter atherosclerosis is attributable not only to hydroxytyrosol and vitamin E but also to its content of cholesterol-lowering mono-unsaturated fats.
  • The olive's waxy skin is rich in maslinic acid, now proving to be a natural defense against colon cancer; it inhibits proliferation of colon cancer cells.
  • Olive oil and wine, two major components of the highly beneficial Mediterranean diet, together combat arterial stiffening and other immediate after-effects of consuming high-calorie meals.
  • The polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil are proving to be natural killers of breast cancer cells, and current tests suggest they may make safe new chemotherapeutic agents.
  • When compared to their butter-loving American counterparts, Italians consume 24 times the amount of olive oil per capita. That culinary choice might account for their considerably lower rates of obesity and heart disease.