Food and Nutrition

Pickles Are Good. But Are They Good for You?

Emily Laurence

Photo: Stocksy/Postscriptum
It's pretty undisputed that most vegetables are good for you. You don't see many nutritionists telling their clients to steer clear of kale or cauliflower, for example. No one is out there arguing over cucumbers either, which is why it's a real head scratcher that once you pickle them, the confusion sets in.

On the one hand, fermented veggies are good for the gut, but on the other, the sodium content is pretty up there. In case you haven't been up close and personal with the pickle making process, here's how it's done: Cucumbers are put in a mason jar with water, salt, and spices of your choice (though garlic and dill are popular ones). Then, you let them soak for three days, and voila, your cucumbers have metamorphosed into beautiful pickles, ready to be crunched on. And of course, you can pickle other veggies beyond cucumbers.

But...beyond just being a delish sandwich supporter, are they actually healthy? I went to the research to find out once and for all.

Nutritional profile

Since pickles are just cucumbers (or other veggies) that have gone through the process of being pickled, their nutrient profile is dependent on the specific pickling process used, says registered dietician and nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN. "One method is through fermentation, where cucumbers or other vegetables are soaked in a salty brine resulting in a bacterial breakdown of sugars that produce the characteristic sour, tangy flavor of pickles," she says. "The other method of pickling is soaking the cucumber in vinegar." If that vinegar has a "mother"—the slimy blob of sediment found in vinegar bottles that's composed of bacteria that feed on alcohol—it will be fermented,  says Feller. If not, the cucumber will not be fermented.

Either way, Feller says that (cucumber-based) pickles are a great source of Vitamin K, with one cup of dill pickles providing 70% of the daily value. "The micronutrient profile of pickles is relatively similar to that of cucumbers—containing vitamins A, C, and multiple B vitamins as well as calcium, potassium, and fiber, although in relatively low amounts," she says.

The pros

1. Pickles are probiotic

As previously mentioned, (most) pickles are a fermented food, meaning they're high in probiotics and good for your gut. During the fermentation process, the sugars in the vegetable are broken down and turned into lactic acid, which holds the probiotic benefits. By now, you likely know that a happy gut means happy everything: The microbiome is ground zero for not only digestion but also your immune system and even plays a major role in maintaining a healthy weight. The moral here: Adding pickles to your hot dog could just be the best thing you do for your body at a cookout.

2. Pickles are good for your eyes

If you stare at a computer all day, incorporating pickles into your diet could do you some good. They're high in vitamin A, which is linked to supporting healthy vision. As an added bonus, vitamin A is good for your immune system, too.

3. Pickles help keep bones strong

Besides vitamin A, pickles also contain vitamin K, which has been connected to helping prevent osteoporosis because of its ability to regulate calcium levels.

4. Pickles help with muscle cramps

According to one study, athletes who drank pickle juice had shorter muscle cramps than athletes who drank water, due in large part to the salt. Taking in moderate levels of sodium can help with muscle contractions.

The cons

1. Processed pickles can be full of preservatives and lack probiotic benefits

If you really want to reap the nutritional benefits of pickles, the key is to buy them refrigerated. Pickles made to be left on store shelves are typically made with vinegar, which kills most of their gut-healthy benefits. Processed pickles often include preservatives and more sodium so they last longer. By opting for refrigerated ones, however, you'll get all the healthy benefits.

2. Pickles can cause bloating

If your stomach starts to balloon after eating pickles, you can blame the salt used in the fermentation process, because salty foods notoriously cause bloating. This mostly happens with processed, jarred pickles which don't have the probiotic benefits of fresh pickles, which have less salt, and therefore cause less bloating. Alternatively, you could simply be having too many pickles, which might account for the bloat.

3. And yes, pickles can be high in sodium

To echo the above sentiment, while pickles are good at assisting athletes whose electrolytes have been depleted, because they're fermented with salt, pickles do have quite a bit of sodium, averaging 313 milligrams per serving. (The American Heart Association recommends capping it at 1,500 milligrams a day.) Cue the "everything in moderation" chorus.

So, are pickles good for you?

While processed, jarred pickles made to sit on store shelves for months aren't exactly superfoods, fresh pickles are full of nutritional benefits. The sweet spot is having one or two to get the probiotic benefits while keeping sodium intake moderate. If you keep all that in mind, pickles can be beneficial part of a healthy diet.

How to serve pickles

Of course, you can eat pickles straight from the jar, or slap them on a sandwich, burger, hot dog, or the like. But there are more creative ways to serve pickles, too. "Cornichon [pickles]—also known as gherkins—are the small pickles that are often found on charcuterie boards alongside different meats and cheeses and often served with fondue, or raclette in Switzerland [aka, melted cheese]," says Feller. "These small but mighty pickles feature a blend of spices including tarragon, cloves, garlic, onions, peppercorns, and dill, and provide a flavorful crunch."

A popular French dish utilizing cornichons is the "rich and flavorful" sauce Gribiche, says Feller. "A combination of pickled cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, white wine vinegar, capers, and an herb blend, this dish goes well with potatoes or served over a spring vegetable," she says.

Another way to serve pickles is to make the popular Korean dish Oi sobagi, which consists of stuffed cucumber kimchi. "[It's] a delicious addition to any summer barbecue," Feller says. "The kimchi paste is traditionally prepared with chili flakes, fish or anchovy sauce, garlic, ginger, chives, and Korean radish."

Finally, Feller recommends trying Haitian Pickliz. "They're a vibrant and fiery side to any dish—I love them with Haitian black rice, beans, and avocado," she says. "Traditionally, they are prepared with cabbage, carrots, scotch bonnet peppers, shallots, thyme, cloves, and lime juice marinated in white vinegar for about one week. The assortment of flavors provides a perfect balance between pickled vegetables and heat."

Quick pickle brine recipe

Makes four 12- to 16-ounce jars

Ingredients
1 tbsp allspice
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp whole mustard seeds
1 tsp celery seeds
4 garlic gloves, smashed
7 to 10 whole okra
1 sweet onion, quartered
1 cup green beans
3 kirby cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
4 cups vinegar
4 cups boiling water

1. In a small bowl, to make the dry mixture, combine the allspice, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and celery seeds.
2. Into each of 4 (12- to 16-ounce) heat-proof jars, add one teaspoon of dry mixture.
3. Add 1 garlic glove to each jar.
4. Fill one jar with okra, one with onion, one with green beans, and one with cucumbers.
5. Fill each jar with the vinegar and water mixture up to three-quarters full. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes, or until room temperature, then refrigerate for 24 hours. Store refrigerated for up to 2 months.

Excerpt from The Southern Comfort Food Diabetic Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life, by Maya Feller, MS RD CDN, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2019 by Callisto Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

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