08 Nov

Removing bitterness of olives leaves a lot of salt

By Ed Blonz, Ph.D.

Q: We all know how healthful extra virgin olive oil is for us. Do we get the same health benefit from eating olives?

A: Olives are quite bitter coming off the tree. When used as eating olives, they need to undergo a curing process to remove this bitterness. It usually involves a salt solution, or one using lye (sodium hydroxide).

Both processes leave the eating olives quite high in sodium; 15 grams of olives (3-5 olives, depending on size) contain about 115 milligrams of sodium. (In pimento-stuffed olives, the sodium can be twice that amount.)

When olives are used for oil, the harvested olives go directly to the presses without treatment. The fatty acid profile and types of phytochemicals are similar between eating olives and extra virgin olive oil, but you would have to eat many olives to equal a comparable amount of oil.

For example, a tablespoon of olive oil would contain 120 calories from about 14 grams of oil. It would take about 22 large black pitted olives to match that amount of oil, but that number of olives would could contain 644 mg sodium.

I do enjoy eating olives, and there are countless varieties and flavors, but you have to keep in mind that it’s a high-sodium food. If you are interested in olives, there is an excellent visual of different types of olives from the UC Davis Cooperative Extension. The document is online in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format, and can be found at http://tinyurl.com/rkktd.

Q I have been trying to cut back on my intake of meats and dairy. I have two boys ages 6 and 11, and I was wondering if my new vegetarian menu will provide them the protein they need.

A A vegetarian menu can easily meet your family’s protein needs. The answer to your question, though, will depend on which foods you include. You cannot simply eat plant foods without any plan and think you have things covered. A little background on protein may be of assistance.

First, there’s no question that proteins are important in the scheme of things; they are used to make hair, skin, nails, muscles, organs, blood cells, bones, brain and nerve tissue, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, chemical messengers and the DNA and RNA used to form the genetic code of life. Quite a lineup.

While there are different types of protein, they are all made up of the same amino acid building blocks. Our body can synthesize many amino acids on its own, but there are some we cannot make, and these have to be supplied by our diet. The needed ones are referred to as the essential amino acids (EAAs).

Most foods have some amino acids. Animal proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, are called complete proteins because they contain all the EAAs. Vegetable proteins such as grains and legumes are considered to be incomplete proteins because they’re missing or are very low in one or more of the EAAs. (Soy protein is an exception in that it is a complete protein.)

Vegetarianism revolves around the fact that one can easily meet daily protein requirements by combining plant foods in a way that provides all the EAAs the body needs.

There are three basic types of vegetable protein: whole grains, such as rice, corn, oats and barley; legumes, such as beans and lentils; and nuts and seeds, such as almonds, peanuts, sunflower and sesame seeds.

By planning the meals for the day to include foods from two or more of these groups, you end up creating a complete protein. For example, by eating rice (grains) and beans (legumes), you supply the body the EAAs it needs to make its protein. The complementary foods don’t have to be at the same meal.

There is an excellent source page on vegetarianism at the National Institutes of Health (http://tinyurl.com/othdn). It has many reference links, including one for vegetarianism as it affects growing children.

Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and the author of “Power Nutrition” (Signet, 1998).

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