The Reason Grocery Stores Don't Sell Fresh Olives

Fruits, vegetables, meat, bread. With what we buy at the grocery store, it's safe to assume that the fresher equals better for many aspects, but most importantly, flavor. But every rule has at least one exception; and in the context of grocery store items, olives are one very big exception. The reason shoppers only see olives in the form of oils or marinated in jars is because olives in their natural state are chemically predisposed to taste really bad. So bad, in fact, that PBS shares neither food distributors nor manufacturers choose to sell the fruit without processing beforehand (via YouTube).

We can attribute the terribly bitter taste of fresh olives to a chemical compound called oleuropein. When fully ripe and raw, olives contain a rather high concentration of oleupein — as much as 14%, shares PBS. According "Olives and Olive Oil in Health and Disease Prevention" (via ScienceDirect), oleuropein is a "phenolic compound found in olive leaves and the oil of its fruit." The book further details that while this chemical compound is what gives olive oil some of its "desirable bitterness ... raw or unprocessed olives are objectionably bitter."

How olives become edible

So now you know why you'll never find raw olives at your local Aldi, but how do producers (and occasionally very motivated home cooks) turn the bitter, inedible fruit into the salty snack so many love?

A few different methods can be employed to remove oleuropein from this charcuterie board mainstay. In a video, PBS explains the compound can be "leached out" of the olives by placing them in a salt or water brine for a few weeks (via YouTube). For a speedier, equally effective solution, many food manufacturers rely on removing the oleuropein in fresh olives with a sodium hydroxide solution, also known as lye. The latter method (which normally takes no more than a week, according to Mental Floss) is likely more cost-effective, as it expedites a producer's ability to meet customer demand for tasty, briny olives. 

Regardless of any personal frustrations with the food industry or concerns about eating processed foods, even the most devoted food purists would likely reconsider their position after taking a teensy, tiny bite of raw olive. You might say they'll be inspired to offer an olive branch.