Olives are a common craving among pregnant women, so it’s understandable that their safety in pregnancy is queried. In this article, I’m going to run through all the different types of olives available, and whether they are all safe for pregnant women to eat.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Olives? Olives from a can, tin or jar are much safer for pregnant women to eat than cured olives from a delicatessen or olive bar. Heat-treated olives are far less likely to be contaminated with listeria. Cooking olives makes them all safe to eat.
There is very little information available to pregnant women on olives, so I’ve dug into the scientific research on whether olives can be a source of listeria, and how they can be made safer in pregnancy.
Olives and Listeria – What You Need to Know
Pregnant women are often aware that many items from delicatessens, such as pre-made salads and deli meat, should be avoided, as they’re prone to cross-contamination and can harbor listeria (there’s more on deli meat here, if you’re likely to eat it during pregnancy).
A 2004 study found that listeria survives most traditional ‘cured’ olive preparation methods, and contamination levels may increase the longer the olives have been kept, even under refrigeration. The study recommended that heat treatment is the only guaranteed way of making olives much safer (source: Journal of Food Protection).
“Heat treated” olives come in cans or jars and have a softer texture. They have either been pasteurized or sterilized, which kills listeria. Olives that haven’t been heat-treated still have a firm ‘bite’ to them. Delicatessens commonly have the cured variety, so check this first.
What the olives are stored in may also make a difference. Another study found that olive brine, rather than oil, may inhibit the growth of foodborne pathogens like listeria and E. coli, depending on how much salt is used (source: PubMed).
Olives that are stored and served from an open container are more likely to be susceptible to cross-contamination.
These findings applies to all olives, including green, black, kalamata and so on. The variety or color doesn’t make a difference. How the olives are cured and stored, and whether they are heat-treated (pasteurized or sterilized) or not is the primary thing to look for.
- Traditionally cured olives from a deli should be avoided
- Olives served from open containers (such as a buffet, olive bar or in a deli or store fridge) should also be avoided
- Heat-treated olives (straight from a can or jar) are much safer in pregnancy
- Olives in brine may be safer to eat than those in oil or marinade
- Heat-treated olives can safely be eaten in early pregnancy, the first trimester and beyond.
If you have eaten olives from a deli or olive bar already, don’t panic! The odds of contracting listeria are still extremely low. The avoidance of cured olives is simply to reduce an already-low risk. The best thing is to stick to heat-treated olives from a can or jar for the rest of your pregnancy, or heat up or cook the olives, which will kill most pathogens, including listeria.
If you’ve already eaten deli olives, you don’t need to do anything unless you experience symptoms out of the ordinary (for example, aches, nausea, mild flu-like symptoms that aren’t normal for you). If you do, then contact a health professional straight away.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Stuffed Olives?
Some olive varieties are stuffed with other food, such as pimento-stuffed green olives, cheese-stuffed queen olives, or with an anchovy filling. There are many olive fillings, and it varies from country to country.
The good news is that if you’re eating heat-treated olives from a can or jar, the stuffing (no matter what it is, but most commonly pimento) is also safe in pregnancy, as it will also have been heat-treated during the process. All stuffed olives are safe, if they’re from a can or jar.
Stuffed, cured olives from a deli should be avoided for the reasons given above. The olives themselves won’t be heat-treated, and neither will the stuffing. Some may be stuffed with other fillings that are best avoided, such as soft blue cheese. You might also be interested in this article on which cheeses are pregnancy-safe, too.
Foods Containing Olives and Pregnancy Safety
Olives aren’t always eaten on their own, so here are a couple of commonly-queried dishes with olives in, and their pregnancy safety.
- Olive tapenade should be treated the same way as a vegetable pate or spread. Shelf-stable (non-refrigerated) versions that you see on a shelf, in a jar, are safe to eat in pregnancy. Fresh versions that you find in a fridge should be avoided, as they won’t be sterilized or pasteurized.
- Olives on a pizza – these are usually from a can or jar, and if they are, they are perfectly safe to eat when you’re pregnant. If you’re not sure, ask the pizza place. Alternatively, if the olives have been put in the pizza oven as part of the topping, they’ll be heated enough to make them safe in pregnancy, too.
- Olives in a salad – usually, these are the canned or jarred type, so are safe, but ask first if you didn’t prepare the salad yourself.
- Olives baked into bread – these are safe in pregnancy as they will have been cooked during the bread-baking process.
- Cooked olives – for example, in pasta puttanesca, or in a frittata, or any other hot food. These are all safe as they’re sufficiently heated enough to be safe for pregnant women to eat.
Is Olive Leaf Extract Safe in Pregnancy?
Olive Leaf Extract is commonly used to treat colds, coughs and other minor ailments. There is conflicting information on whether or not Olive Leaf Extract is safe for pregnant women.
According to the Journal of Primary Health Care, pregnant women can take olive leaf extract, but in no greater amounts than that found in food (source: JPHC). This would exclude the amounts of olive leaf extract commonly found in supplements.
World Health states that no standard therapeutic amount has been established, no safe maximum has been established, and pregnant women should avoid olive leaf extract as its safety during pregnancy has not been established either.
The American Pregnancy Association cautions against some herbal supplements (though olive leaf extract is not mentioned on their list). They recommend that if you’re pregnant, you should contact your healthcare provider or a qualified and experienced herbalist before taking herbs such as olive leaf extract at a supplemental, rather than food level (source: APA).
What Are The Benefits of Eating Olives When Pregnant?
Olives are a good source of vitamin E, iron, copper, and dietary fiber, all of which are important in pregnancy (source: WHFoods).
Olives are around 10-15% fat, which is why they are used in making olive oil (covered below). The majority of this is made up of a monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid, which has been found to yeild several health benefits, such as better heart health and a reduction in inflammation (source: PubMed).
The only thing to look out for when eating olives is that they can be high in sodium, (source: USDA) either from their brine or marinade, or when they’re stuffed with salty products such as anchovies.
The benefits of olives as part of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ are well documented. This also applies to olive oil, too, which is covered below.
Is Olive Oil Good in Pregnancy?
Olive oil can be beneficial for pregnant women, particularly if consumed as part of a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet. A 2019 study found that when pregnant women followed the Mediterranean diet, which included olive oil, they were less likely to have gestational diabetes, and reduce gestational weight gain (source: PLOS).
Another study found that having olive oil during pregnancy could reduce wheezing in the baby’s first year (source: PubMed). The Olive Oil Times also reported that the benefits of olive oil for your baby can continue into adulthood, too, as discovered by the University of Santa Maria (source: Olive Oil Times).
Olive oil is, therefore, a healthy, good option during pregnancy. It’s especially beneficial if added to nutrient-dense foods that you should be eating more of during pregnancy, such as on salads or veggies, or added to dressings or sauces.
If you’re not having olives in oil form, then eating heat-treated ones (as covered in this article) is also a good option in pregnancy.
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