When this fruit is picked from a tree, its taste is extremely bitter. That’s due to the compound oleuropein.
In order to make them edible, at least according to most people’s standards, they undergo a curing process to get rid of the bitterness. This inevitably involves a brine solution consisting of water and heavy salt usage.
There are also lye-cured olives. In fact, many canned black olives are made using lye.
Also known as sodium hydroxide (NaOH), it is true that lye is a caustic compound used in cleaning and for industrial purposes. The strongest hair relaxers use it, too.
Having it in your food may sound scary or perhaps poisonous, but making olives with lye is a practice which has been going on for millennia. Since the time of the Romans, wood ashes have been used as a source of lye for curing this fruit.
Written sometime during the 4th century AD, this was recorded:
“Mix together a setier of passum, two handfuls of well-sifted cinders, a trickle of old wine and some cypress leaves. Pile all the olives in this mixture, saturate them with this paste in garnishing them with several layers, until you see it reach the edges of the containers.”
The above describes using lye, the just didn’t know it. The “well-sifted cinders” and cypress leaves mixed with cheap booze was naturally creating it. You can read more about this in Cato and Varro: On Agriculture.
The lye curing process involves several steps of soaking and rinsing, in order to minimize how much is left in the actual food you eat. Even then, salt is almost always involved, especially as a preservative for canning and bottling. That means no sodium olives are basically non-existent, regardless of whether it’s a lye or lye-free production method.
That is why olives are so salty. Without the curing process involving the heavy use of salt, they won’t taste anything like the delicious and juicy oval-shaped fruits you’re accustomed to.
Low sodium black, green, or Kalamata?
If you can’t avoid it entirely, is there a way to dramatically decrease how much sodium you’re getting with each serving?
The depends on your definition of dramatic.
Watch out because even the healthiest olives which claim to have low salt might still be loaded with it.
Case in point: This Sky Island Organics brand we came across at Erewhon, which is LA’s most popular specialty health grocer.
While we are quite familiar with the premium brand, you can forget finding these at Walmart. We haven’t even seen them for sale at Whole Foods or Sprouts.
Their branding infers they are some of the lowest sodium, so they must be really low, right?
Far from it.
One serving – just 3 Kalamata olives – contain a whopping 440 mg of sodium! Their other flavors were awful, too.
To put that in perspective, your max should be 1,500 mg per day.
That’s according to the American Heart Association (1).
The USDA’s limit is higher at 2,400 mg, but that number is basically a scam. Doctors have criticized such a high limit. Many allege it is because the USDA is yielding to the food industry rather than what’s best for your health.
Can you imagine how awful those nutrition facts labels would look if the 2,400 was lowered to 1,500? Just like that, the same serving of potato chips would go from having 25% to 40% of your daily value, without even changing the salt content.
But whether you want to go with the 1,500 or the 2,400 as your guide, these low sodium Kalamata olives are slapping you with 29% or 18% of your daily value for eating just 3 of them! Choose either number, both are terrible.
Just eating 3 of these olives gives you more sodium than what a large order of McDonald’s fries has, which is 290 mg. Even if you add ketchup, the fries are still less.
This is not meant to imply you should eat acrylamide loaded fried potatoes instead, but the fact is you probably would get way more enjoyment out of eating them versus 3 bites of overpriced olives!
Setting aside the source of this mineral, might there be a more serious reason you regularly crave salty snacks?
Although it’s inconclusive, there has been some research which suggests those with chronic stress in their life tend to crave them more versus sweet (2). Something to think about.
But whether you’re stressed or not, obviously this mineral is quite enjoyable to eat. Unfortunately, it’s just not good for us. True, it is essential for life, but all foods – plants, meats, and dairy – all contain more than enough sodium naturally, before any is added. We don’t need extra.
Whether it’s a sandwich from Subway or a salad from Olive Garden, both of these places will probably use at least a couple olives in your food. And those are not even the reduced sodium olives. Can you imagine how much excess salt you must be taking in from something like a pizza with black olives rained all over it?
Are olives unhealthy?
Often times, yes, they are absolutely terrible for you. Now that is something you will almost never hear anyone say.
Instead, everyone is raving about their health benefits and how good they are for you. Allegedly.
Depending on the variety, 80 to 85% of the calories are coming from fat content. That’s even higher than most nuts, which are often around 70%.
Now just because something is fattening, that doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. In fact, fats are a requirement in your diet. But we don’t need a whole lot and any excess is a problem for people who struggle with weight loss.
Whether it’s nuts or olives, because they are mostly fat, you can eat a lot of them – calorie wise – and not even realize it.
Most people understand that with nuts and seeds, but when it comes to this fruit, few are aware that its fat percentage is actually higher.
To be clear, eating a couple high fat foods in your daily diet is perfectly fine, if done in moderation and you don’t gain weight as a result. Olives are bad for you in almost any quantity if you struggle with weight loss. They are a high calorie food with little nutritional benefit.
A calorie of fat equals a calorie of fat regardless of type. But some types are still healthier for you than others.
It is true that the fat in olives is almost entirely monounsaturated, in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated, along with polyunsaturated, are considered heart healthy fats.
Some research suggests that moderate consumption of them may help you lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol and if you’re a type 2 diabetic, enjoy better blood sugar control (3). You also get a fair amount of the antioxidant vitamin E from monounsaturated fats.
The rebuttal? Even if they are heart healthy fat, do they still remain so after they get loaded up with salt?
Even if blood pressure is of no concern to you, be aware that scientists have now concluded that excess sodium causes inflammation in everyone (4). So whether you have low or high blood pressure, are young or old, slim or fat, healthy or unhealthy, too much salt in your diet is something you should be concerned with.
Facts and myths on antioxidant content
Those are another benefit you hear touted for why olives are good for you.
Do those folks ever give you concrete data to back up that claim?
Here are the ORAC values, which is a measure of in vitro antioxidant content, for the three most common types:
- Kalamata olives = 3,130
- Green olives = 1,010
- Black olives = 350
Now those numbers will mean nothing without comparison. You should check out our ORAC values food database for perspective.
As an average across all apple varieties, if you keep the skin intact, the ORAC value for apples is 3,049. Essentially, the same as Kalamata.
But that does not mean 3,049 for a single apple and 3,130 for a single olive.
ORAC is using a 100 gram food sample, which is about 3.5 ounces.
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 1 medium apple weighs 182 grams.
That means the number of ORAC units you’re getting from eating one apple equals 5,549 (that’s 82% more than 100 grams worth, which is 3,049).
The average weight of a Kalamata olive is 9 grams for the large size, while smaller ones may be only 5 grams.
Sky Island Organics brand, the olives with low salt content (allegedly), list their 3 piece serving size as weighing 28 grams.
That means you are only getting 28% of the Kalamata ORAC value (which represents 100 grams worth).
When you run the math, you find the ORAC value per serving of Kalamata is 876.
That means eating just one average medium-sized apple will provide you with 550% more antioxidants than what a serving of those little sodium bombs will provide.
Kalamata are the healthiest type of olives according to the ORAC scale.
If the math looks that bad for Kalamata, can you imagine how terrible black and green olives would look in comparison? Their ORAC values are lower by 65% and 88%, respectively, versus Kalamata.
How many olives should I eat a day?
Perhaps none. For those with blood pressure problems, they should be a treat you have once in a blue moon. At least when it come to most of the brands on the market.
The best brands which have had their sodium content significantly reduced would be okay to eat everyday. Only if you stick to one serving though, maybe two for those with the lowest amounts.
How many that equals will vary by their type and size but generally, it will mean only 3 to 6 olives per day. Double that number if you find the sodium content in two servings to be acceptable.
As with potato chips, you shouldn’t devour an entire package during a single session of Netflix binging.
Healthiest olives to buy
It’s not as bad as asking which cigarette is healthier, but the fact remains that most brands will be providing you with high amounts of salt. There’s no getting around that.
The only way you can buy a no sodium olive is if you bought it straight from the orchard it was grown, before any processing.
Even if you live in California, Australia, or a Mediterranean country where they were grown, you still probably won’t want to do that. Given their extreme bitter flavor, you wouldn’t enjoy eating them fresh. No one does.
That means you have to circle back to the store bought brands, which are already processed.
Is it better to buy them in a can or jar? Both are equal offenders, at least when it comes to this particular nutritional value.
You want to eat the most you can, with the least amount of salt, right?
For that reason, the best olives to eat will be whichever brand at your disposal has the lowest amount. As you will see in a moment, those tend to be the blacks and greens.
Yes, the purple Kalamata do have more antioxidants, but as demonstrated by the math above, it doesn’t really matter since the serving size is so small. That’s why the salt metric should be your determining factor.
Taste matters too, of course. We’re just letting you know what types are healthiest based on the science. Flavor is a preference which is subjective in nature.
Rather than focus on mg per serving, pay attention to the calculations we ran for sodium per gram of food. That’s a better representation, since serving sizes can vary greatly by type and manufacturer.
Speaking of serving sizes, some of these are indeed very low but that’s assuming you have the will power to eat just a couple.
If you’re topping a homemade pizza or salad, chances are you will lob them on quite liberally. Probably using the equivalent of several servings per person.
Here’s a look at a few popular brands and how much salt content they have, as of the date of this review.
|Brand||Packaging||Serving Size (# of olives)||Sodium Per Serving (mg)||Sodium Per Gram of Olive (mg)|
|1.||Early California Reduced Salt Large Pitted Black California Ripe Olives||Can||4 (15g)||70||4.7|
|2.||Early California Reduced Salt Pimiento Stuffed Manzanilla Green Olives||Jar||4 (15g)||70||4.7|
|3.||Lindsay Naturals Black Ripe Olives||Can||5 (15g)||115||7.7|
|4.||Sunfood Superfoods Organic Pitted Peruvian Black Botija Olives||Bag||7 (28g)||220||7.9|
|5.||Pearls Sliced Black Olives, California Ripe||“To go” cup||2 Tbsp, unspecified number (16g)||135||8.4|
|6.||Divina Organic Whole Kalamata Olives||Jar||3 (15g)||190||12.7|
|7.||Mediterranean Organic Pitted Kalamata Olives||Jar||6 (15g)||224||14.9|
|8.||Sky Island Organics Olives Alive Traditional Kalamata Low Salt||Jar||3 (28 grams)||440||15.7|
|9.||Mezzetta Italian Castelvetrano Whole Green Olives||Jar||2 (12g)||240||20.0|
|10.||Santa Barbara Olive Co. Hand Stuffed Jalapeno & Garlic Green Olives||Jar||unspecified number (14g)||510||36.4|
This an example of where the higher-end brands and niche superfood companies may actually be worse for you!
Look at where Sky Island ranks, it’s one of the worst. Santa Barbara is an expensive brand, often costing $2 or $3 more per jar. Ironically, the best grocery store olives are some of the most affordable brands; Lindsay and Early California. Those are some of the lowest sodium olives for sale you will find at the supermarket.
Be aware that when they’re sold in cans, they may have been lined with BPA or similar xenoestrogenic coatings. This is why it’s better to buy olives in a glass jar versus a can.