You can add them to your martinis, put them in your salads, or even eat them straight from the jar — and yet, most people don’t know what olives really are.
I mean, we press them into oil that we use for cooking, slice them up for our pizzas, and even stuff them to create delicacies, so it’s hard to know whether to call them a fruit, a vegetable, or something completely different…
The fact is, although they’re used as vegetables in the kitchen, olives are scientifically defined as fruits.
And get this…despite the amount of things we can find them in, we can’t actually eat olives directly from the tree. Well, technically, you COULD eat them but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for you!
In this article, we’ll explore exactly why olives are fruits, how they differ from vegetables, and why we can’t eat them straight from the tree like many other fruits.
Let’s jump in!
Why Is An Olive A Fruit? (And Why is it Bitter?)
An olive is technically called a “stone fruit,” or a “drupe,” which refers to the pit that is inside it — the “stone” is the seed, so to speak.
It’s similar to other types of drupes, such as:
Because it is a stone fruit, you could plant a seed from an olive and grow an (you guessed it) olive tree.
Interestingly, the olive plant creates a chemical called “oleuropein,” which creates a really bitter taste when you try to eat it straight from the tree.
This helps it survive from birds and other animals trying to eat it — you’ll see them avoid olive trees pretty quickly after having a bite!
Oleuropein is a phytochemical, which some plants use to combat the competitive conditions in nature, with lots of different plants and fruits using this defense-system.
You’re probably wondering “how can an olive be a fruit, if it’s so bitter and can’t readily be eaten?”
And you’re right to wonder that — look at most of the other fruits around, pretty much all of them are sweet and ready to be eaten straight from the tree.
The thing is, sweetness doesn’t exactly define a fruit…
The main thing we’re looking at, despite everything that makes it seem that olives shouldn’t be a fruit, is the fact that olives have seeds, are edible, and come from a flower/tree.
However, there are two definitions as to what makes a fruit a fruit and a vegetable a vegetable.
This means that we have to look at it from both a botanical (plant science) perspective and a culinary perspective.
And, as we’ll talk about in a second, olives can be put through a process that brings out their flavor and gets rid of that non-appealing bitterness.
But first, what makes a fruit different from a vegetable?
The Difference Between a Fruit and a Vegetable
A fruit and a vegetable are sometimes tricky to differentiate.
Simply put, a fruit is an edible part of a plant/tree that develops from a flower and has a seed, whereas a vegetable is the edible part of that plant outside of the thing that develops from the seed (things like leaves, roots, etc.)
That being said, it gets even trickier when you look at a botanist’s (plant scientist) definition of either of these versus a culinary definition.
For example, a tomato by “scientific” definition is a fruit, since it comes from a tomato plant and has seeds.
However, from a culinary perspective, a tomato is a vegetable due to its meatier and savory taste.
This makes things a little bit confusing — so let’s break down what this means for an olive:
- An olive is a fruit in scientific terms because it comes from a tree and has a seed or pit.
- An olive is a vegetable in culinary terms because it is not sweet.
So, that’s it in a nutshell — now let’s see how these confusing, bitter, fruits turn into tasteful, delicious, snacks.
How Do Olives Turn From Bitter to Tasteful?
There is this process called brining, which basically involves us bathing olives in salt water.
This helps us get rid of the bitterness that the olive would usually have, and brings out the great, distinct taste it hides underneath.
Apparently, someone long ago discovered some olives that had fallen into the Mediterranean Sea and were soaking in it.
They tried eating the fruits, found them to be delicious, and thus brining olives was born!
What About Olive Oil?
Now, classifying olive oil as a fruit or vegetable obviously doesn’t work — it’s just oil made from fruits.
The process is actually pretty similar to making wine from grapes.
After being brined, the olives are pressed to create a paste.
This paste is then either pressed again to drain out the oil from it, or by being put into a centrifuge that rotates very quickly.
This quick rotation separates the oil, flesh, skin, and water, filtering out all the stuff that we don’t need for the oil.
The first batch of oil that comes from this process is extra virgin olive oil, which is the purest grade of olive oil.
For lower grade oils, the pressed olives can be pressed again, and sometimes have water added to them to provide more volume.
Do Olives Change Colors?
Olives do in fact change colors.
Believe it or not, regardless of variety, an olive begins green when it is unripe on the tree, and slowly turns reddish, then purplish, then finally black as it ripens.
That is why your olives may differ in color — it all depends on when they were picked from the tree!
Nutritional Information of Olives
Olives, although high in sodium (they are bathed in salt, after all!), are a surprisingly good source of vitamin E, which has all kinds of health benefits ranging from your skin to your blood to your brain.
This is due to olives being a high-fat fruit (don’t worry, it’s the good kind of fat).
Here’s a closer look at the nutritional content of olives:
|Calories||Protein (g)||Carbohydrates (g)||Fat (g)||Fiber (g)||Sugar (g)|
|Per 100g of Canned Black Olives||116||0.8||6||10.9||1.6||0|
And here’s the vitamin and mineral breakdown:
|Vitamin E (mg)||Vitamin C (mg)||Calcium (mg)||Iron (mg)||Sodium (mg)||Potassium (mg)|
|Per 100g of Canned Black Olives||1.65||0.9||88||6.28||735||8|
Conclusion: An Olive is Technically Fruit, Culinarily a Vegetable, and Naturally Bitter
An olive is overall considered a fruit due to the fact that it comes from a plant or tree and has a seed.
From a culinary perspective, an olive is a vegetable due to it not being sweet — but that’s a whole different side of the food-world.
Unlike most other fruits, olives have to go through a process called brining to get rid of the bitterness produced by the chemical oleuropein.
After completing this process, we have tasty and delicious fruits.
Now, enjoy your martinis and olives with your new knowledge!
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