When you’re having a cookout, no hamburger or hot dog is complete without a pickle. Some people like the tangy crunch of a dill spear. Others prefer the hint of sweetness of pickle relish. Still others might live on the edge and have a pickle that’s spiced.
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There’s no doubt that all of these pickles taste delicious. But are they good for you? Not always, believe it or not.
Are pickles healthy?
It all depends on what kind of pickles you’re eating and if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
On the plus side, pickles — which are made from cucumbers — are generally a low-calorie, low-fat food. They’re also a source of fiber, as well as vitamins A and K. And, like all vegetables and fruit, they have antioxidants.
But dietitian Devon Peart, RD, MHSc, BASc, says pickles might not be the best option for everybody. Sweet pickles, for example, can be high in sugar, while dill pickles are very, very high in sodium.
“One large dill pickle has more than two-thirds of the ideal amount of sodium that an adult should have in a whole day,” Peart says. “If you have high blood pressure, or any cardiovascular or heart health issues, then pickles are not the best choice. That’s because of the sodium levels.”
Fermented pickles vs. regular pickles
The way pickles are made also dictates how healthy they are.
Fermentation is one method of preserving. Pickles made through fermentation have added health benefits compared with non-fermented pickles. “If they’re fermented, they’re a good source of probiotics,” notes Peart. “Probiotics have really solid health benefits, such as being good for your brain, and good for gut health.”
Fermented pickles are packed in airtight jars with a brine of just salt and water, and then left to sit at room temperature for a long period of time. A chemical reaction that occurs between bacteria and the natural sugars in the food creates lactic acid, which keeps the pickles fresher longer.
But not all pickles undergo fermentation. Generally, Peart says that store-bought pickles haven’t been fermented. Instead, the pickles you see in the grocery store are made via a process called fresh-pack pickling.
“Most grocery store pickles have had vinegar and spices added to the brine,” she continues. “That gives them their sour, tangy flavor. That’s why they’re often called ‘vinegar pickles’ or sometimes ‘quick pickles.’”
Fermentation shares some parallels with pickling, for example, both processes use a brine of water and salt — although they’re different.
Pickled foods are sour because they’re soaked in acidic brine using vinegar. Fermented foods are sour because of the chemical reaction between the natural sugar in the food and bacteria, which produces healthy probiotics.
Pickling dates back to ancient times as a way of preserving food. For example, you might have pickled crops that you harvested during the summer to eat during the long, cold winter months. “The shelf life of pickled foods is really long,” Peart explains. “Pickled foods will last for up to a year when they’re handled properly.”
You can pickle foods at home, to preserve seasonal produce that you buy or grow and have it to enjoy over winter. Even if you don’t ferment veggies or fruits, you can experiment with spices, herbs and flavors, or control the amount of salt in the pickles. As a bonus, because you’re not cooking vegetables or fruits, they retain the healthy antioxidants.
Health benefits of pickles
Fermented pickles are a good source of probiotics. Probiotics protect your gut microbiome, or the bacteria in your gut, Peart says. “Having healthy gut bacteria can minimize symptoms of an irritable bowel. And it can help us digest food and absorb nutrients.”
A healthy gut biome is also linked with better brain health. “We’re even starting to see associations between higher levels of probiotics and lower levels of depression and anxiety,” Peart says. “So, anytime you can have more probiotics is good — and in the case of pickles, we get that if they’re fermented.”
Even if pickles aren’t fermented, they offer health benefits — after all, they’re cucumbers! For example, they’re low in calories and fat and they’re a good source of:
- Antioxidants: These powerful chemicals may protect your cells against free radicals, or molecules associated with cancer, heart disease and other diseases.
- Fiber: Fiber offers multiple health benefits, including helping waste products move through your system.
- Vitamin A: “Pickles are good sources of beta carotene, which we convert to vitamin A,” Peart says. “This is a powerful antioxidant good for vision and cell health in general”.
- Vitamin K: This vitamin is important for heart health.
Maybe surpisingly, pickle juice is also thought to offer certain health benefits on its own.
Are all pickles created equally?
In terms of health benefits, the answer is no. “Fermented pickles are definitely nutritionally superior,” Peart states. “And then beyond that, I would look for varieties that have less salt and less sugar.”
Dill pickles vs. sweet pickles
Dill pickles are high in sodium. But sweet pickles are high in sodium, too, as well as higher in sugar.
|Dill Pickles (100 grams)||Sweet Pickles (100 grams)|
|Beta carotene (mcg)||53||325|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||17||47|
Pickled vegetables are a common snack, in no small part due to how tasty they are. “The pickling process brings out different flavors,” says Peart. “And so there are many different foods that are pickled because people like the taste.”
You can pickle pretty much anything, depending on the texture, including vegetables, fruit, eggs, and even meat and fish.
Pickled eggs are popular in some parts of the world, and as a snack or appetizer in bars and pubs. They’re made by packing boiled eggs in glass jars and adding pickling brine. Sometimes, added beet juice lends the eggs a bright pink hue and a tangy beet flavor.
Eggs are nutrient-rich, but they do contain a form of cholesterol called dietary cholesterol. Still, most people who are healthy can enjoy one or two eggs, three or four times a week, with no significant effect on their cholesterol level.
But proceed with a little bit of caution before eating a pickled egg. Some places puncture the egg with a toothpick so the pickle flavoring seeps into the egg. This practice is dangerous because it can introduce botulinum toxin, which can cause a serious illness caused by botulism. It’s best to avoid pickled eggs that are made this way.
Beets are a vegetable, just like cucumbers. In other words, the process of pickling them is the same, and the same concerns over sodium levels apply here, as well.
Can you eat pickles every day?
Daily pickle consumption depends on what the rest of your diet is like.
“If you’re someone who doesn’t eat a lot of processed foods, fast foods or store-bought foods, or if you’re mostly eating a very low-salt diet, then eating pickles daily might be fine,” Peart says.
If you typically eat higher-salt foods, though, then munching on pickles will quickly put you over your recommended daily sodium intake.
When considering pickles as a snack, you should also take your overall health into consideration. “If blood pressure is an issue or if heart disease runs in your family, this is not a good choice for you,” Peart adds. “But if you’re a healthy person — your blood pressure is fine, you have no heart health issues, and you follow a minimally processed diet — then I think you can enjoy pickles.”
Is eating pickles good for weight loss?
Pickles aren’t necessarily a superfood that will help you lose weight. “No single food will make you lose weight,” stresses Peart.
But if you’re looking for a low-calorie snack, pickles do qualify, assuming your health allows for them. “In general, if you’re keeping your calories down, pickles are a good option,” she says. “However, if you’re someone who has heart issues, then it’s best to choose something else.”
Choosing the right pickle for you
Some varieties of pickles are higher in salt than others. If you’re comparing two different varieties or brands, look at the percent daily value (DV) on the nutrition label and choose the one that’s lower in sodium.
“Generally speaking, a percent daily value that’s 5% or less is low,” Peart says. “If it’s 15% or higher daily value for sodium, that’s considered high. And some dill pickles per serving might be 50% of the recommended daily value for sodium, or more.”
If you do decide to indulge in pickles, be mindful of what else you’re planning to eat.
“To be a filling snack, I would suggest pairing pickles with a little bit of protein, like a handful of nuts or a small piece of cheese,” Peart says. “The protein will help make that very low-calorie food a little bit more filling. And if you’re enjoying pickles, then you should watch your salt intake for the rest of the day.”
Pickles are a tasty and versatile garnish that makes nearly anything you eat better. Just don’t go overboard piling on the pickles. As with many foods, moderation is key.