A Closer Look – Olives

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By Rabbi Sholom Ber Hendel, Rabbinic Coordinator

Olives are small, green fruit that grown on trees in Eretz Yisroel and around the world. They are one of the Shivas Haminim mentioned in the Torah.

Olives are not edible raw due to their bitter taste. About 90% of the world’s supply of olives is crushed into olive oil. The remaining 10% is processed into green and black table olives. Olives have many health benefits and can be eaten as is or used in foods, such as salads, toppings and dips.

Olives are harvested from the trees and transported to manufacturing facilities. Upon arrival, foreign materials such as dirt and leaves are removed and the olives are washed with water. The olives are then placed in large tanks or barrels with a brine made from salt water and other additives. The olives are kept in the brine until the fermentation (curing) process is completed. The length of the process is dependent on the specific variety of the olives and the desired finished product. During the fermentation process, additional salt is added continuously. At the end of the process, the olives are removed from the brine, rinsed with clean water and sorted according to size. At this point, the olives can be cracked, pitted and stuffed and are subsequently packaged in jars or cans with the previously used or new brine. Olives that are sold in retail packaging are usually sterilized in hot water, or preservatives are added to the final brine.

Although dissimilar in appearance, green and black olives come from the same tree. Green olives are essentially unripe fruit. If they are kept on the tree for a longer period of time, they turn purple and then black. At this stage, they are picked and processed. Some varieties of black olives are processed by soaking green olives in a lye (Sodium Hydroxide) solution until the desired color is achieved.

Some olives go through a dry fermentation process that consists of placing the olives in a barrel with dried salt, which breaks down the bitterness. The barrels are mixed daily for a few weeks until the fermentation process is  completed, after which they can be packed either dry, in a brine or processed further with vegetable oil.

Pimento (pepper in Spanish) Olives are pitted olives that are stuffed with pepper. Historically, strips of pepper were placed inside the olive and this method is still used today in some products. Presently, many pimento olives are stuffed with minced pepper, mixed with gelling agents.

The olives themselves (unless they were grown in Israel [see below]) do not cause any kashrus concerns. However, most of the additives that are typically used in the fermentation or packaging brine pose kashrus concerns and care must be taken to ensure that they are sourced from a kosher approved supplier. The most common additives are citric acid, ascorbic acid, lactic acid, acetic acid or vinegar1. Vegetable oil and seasonings can be added to the packaging brine. The gelling agent in the Pimento Olives is another kashrus concern.

Kalamata Olives come from Greece and are often packaged in vinegar. Since much of the vinegar used in Greece is wine vinegar, these olives pose a greater kashrus concern.

Olives that are grown in Israel pose additional kosher concerns. We must ensure that the olives did not grow during the Shmitta Year, and that Terumos U’maasros were taken from them. Even though olive trees do not typically bear fruit during their first few years after planting, there are some varieties that can bear fruit in their third year and, therefore, we must ensure that the olives are not Orlah (fruit produced by a tree during the first three years after planting).

Olives should be purchased solely from companies with reliable kosher certification. The kosher certifying agency will ensure that all of the additives are kosher and that non-kosher is not processed on the same equipment without a proper kosherization (if required).

1. To read more about the kashrus concerns of vinegar, see page 7 in the Kislev 5778 Issue of the Kosher Spirit

Rabbi Hendel is a member of the OK Kosher Vaad HaKashrus.