The unique foods of Greece and their health benefits
– Kalamata Olives
Since ancient times, the Greeks had realized how precious the gifts of Mother Nature were. The Mediterranean climate along with the geological formations of the country created a fertile ground where an abundance of wild herbs and plants could grow. About 1800 endemic species that grow on Greek soil have certified medicinal properties, this month we’re turning our tastes to Kalmata Olives!
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” –Hippocrates
Kalamata Olives and Oil (Olea Europaea)
ORIGIN AND TRAITSAmong the different areas of interest consisting the Greek culture, there is a common emblem, a distinctive representative of the country’s identity. A strong element of the past, a considerable financial source of the present and an integral part of the foreseeable future, the olive tree is iconic of Greece. In the ancient Olympic Games an olive wreath, interweaved with the branches of the sacred olive tree near the temple of Zeus, was the prize given to the winner.
Triumphant athletes would receive what was quoted by Homer as “liquid gold” – amphorae filled with olive oil of the finest quality.
Since 3,500 BC when olive trees were first imported to Crete, the olive tree cultivation has expanded and has been inextricably correlated to the Greek agriculture. After the fall of the Minoan civilization the tree was brought to the Mycenae in the Peloponnesian peninsula, where it thrives up to this day.
In fact, although olive trees are found in regions all over Greece, it is the Kalamata oil and table olives, grown in the Messinian Bay, that bear prominent quality and rank higher in international export demand.
Kalamata olives, in particular, are of distinguished quality due to their harvest process. These almond shaped olives are of black, dark purplish color which entails from the fact that they need to be fully ripe before harvesting. They are carefully selected and handpicked in order to maintain their delicate shape which is easily bruised.
Upon harvest the curing process may last up to three months.
The tactful harvest and long curing process are some of the reasons why Kalamata olives are certified as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
BENEFITS AND HEALING PROPERTIES
It is no wonder why in the 6th century BC, Solon, the Athenian legislator, introduced the first law for the protection of olive trees. Olive trees offer the gifts of oil and olives which are a balsam for the health.
Kalamata olives are packed with nutrients including vitamin A, E and K. Vitamin A and Beta Carotene, support skin health by promoting cell growth, enhance healthy vision and fight inflammation, while Vitamin E has antioxidant properties.
Kalamata olives are also a good source of calcium which helps maintain bone and dental health and prevents against skeletal diseases like arthritis and osteoporosis. Rich in copper, they promote proper brain function and protect against Alzheimer’s Disease.
A cup of olives provides 10% of daily iron needs and is also a good source of fiber which helps control blood sugar levels and aids in weight management. According to the USDA, The United States Department of Agriculture, 4-5 olives a day provide an adequate amount of monounsaturated fats which help control cholesterol levels and lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Kalamata olives are also rich in phenolic compounds and over 25 phytochemicals, which act as natural antioxidants, protecting the body from toxins and free radicals. They also contain lactobacillus, a complex of gut-friendly bacteria with probiotic properties.
USE AND DOSAGE
Kalamata table olives are available on the market in various forms; whole, pitted, sliced, dried or even as a paste. You can choose based on personal taste, however, note the high salt amounts that may be in the more processed forms.
There are many ways to consume Greek olives as they are a complement to dishes and a well-known ouzo meze. You can have them plain, add them sliced in Greek salads or have olive paste crackers as a snack.
Kalamata olives are a great addition to a healthy homemade pizza with sliced onions, feta cheese and tomato sauce.
As they are widely consumed during the lenten period, olives are a savory accompaniment to lentils and beans. Olive bread (eliopsomo) is also a very popular alternative to basic bread which can be easily prepared, or alternatively found at many local bakeries.
Kalamata olives may be consumed in many ways and as a matter of fact, there are even sweet olive preserves made with them (glyko tou koutaliou).
About 10 small olives contain 40 calories, 1,3 ounces of total fat and 0,4 ounces of fiber.
RESEARCH AND INTERNATIONAL INTEREST
Olives in general, are a popular nutritional choice around the world with various health benefits. The certified PDO value of Kalamata olives can only add to the health benefits of the fruit and inspire a thorough research focusing on the variety.
In an article published on Time magazine¹, notable professors shared their conclusions regarding olive consumption. Parthena Kotzekidou, PhD, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece stated, “My research shows that olives are a good source of biophenols, a kind of antioxidant that prevents the accumulation of bad cholesterol in artery walls, making them a heart-healthy snack.”
On a financial perspective, research published by the Interprofessional Association for Table Olives (DOEPEL, 2017) ², “about 62,000 farmers and more than 100 companies are involved in the primary and secondary production of table olives in Greece. The annual production of processed table olives exceeds 200,000 tons, from which 85% is exported, representing 9.2% of the exports of Greek agricultural products”.
It is apparent that the Greek olive production is a timeless value with health, cultural and financial worth.