You may have heard about the health benefits of pickles and pickle juice. Sour, salty pickled cucumbers might help with weight loss, diabetes, and even cancer prevention. But you may also have heard warnings about high sodium content and increased risk of stomach cancer.
Here’s what you need to know to decide whether you want to munch or pass on the next dill pickle you see.
Peter Piper, the one who picked a peck of pickled peppers, probably didn’t eat the whole peck. A peck is about two gallons, way too many pickles of any kind for one person. Depending on the brand and type, nutrition facts can vary widely, but almost all pickles are very high in sodium.
Pickles, cucumber, dill or kosher dill, 1 small spear (35g)
—US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Nutrient Data Laboratory. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Legacy. Version: April 2018 .
Fermentation is one method of pickling, but not all pickles are fermented.
When vegetables and fruits are fermented, healthy bacteria break down the natural sugars. This process is what gives fermented pickles their sour taste. The pickles sit in salt water and ferment over many days.
Fermentation is why some people who are lactose intolerant may be able to eat yogurt. The good bacteria in yogurt breaks down the sugar called lactose. These bacteria, also known as probiotics, preserve foods and have many health benefits for your body.
When pickles aren’t fermented, vinegar gives them their tang. Vinegar itself is produced through a fermentation process, but only vinegars that remain raw and unpasteurized, such as raw apple cider vinegar, retain parts of the “mother culture,” which provides that good bacteria.
Most pickles you’ll find in the grocery store are unfermented, vinegar pickles. In these cases, the cucumbers soak up the vinegar and spices. They’re easy to make at home, too.
Eating fermented foods may help with everything from insulin resistance to inflammation. Sauerkraut, one of the most popular fermented foods worldwide, has been shown to have , while eating yogurt regularly may .
Pickles that are not fermented still deliver the benefits of vinegar, spices, and cucumbers. Drinking pickle juice has become a trend because of touted benefits related to muscle cramps, weight loss, diabetes, and more.
Pickle juice is also a favorite of those following a ketogenic diet, who might need more sodium to manage electrolyte balance.
Pickles can boost your intake of antioxidants. The natural antioxidants found in all fruits and vegetables help in the fight against free radicals. Free radicals are unstable chemicals that form naturally in the body and are linked to problems such as heart disease and cancer.
Cooking any food can break down heat sensitive nutrients, including antioxidants. Pickling raw vegetables and fruits preserves their antioxidant power.
Preserving any kind of food requires the addition of salt, and salt makes up about 5 percent of most pickling recipes. Two small spears contain almost 600 mg of sodium, more than one-quarter of the recommended daily limit.
In addition to being a concern for most people with high blood pressure, extremely salty pickled foods may put you at greater risk for stomach cancer. A 2015 review of the research found that high-salt foods were linked with stomach cancer risk, along with beer and hard liquor.
One way to control the amount of sodium in pickles is to make them yourself.
Pickling, by way of fermentation or a saltwater brine, has been used for thousands of years to preserve food beyond the growing season. Usually, pickling recipes call for salt, white vinegar, and seasonings, such as dill and mustard seeds. In parts of Asia, oil is also used.
While cucumbers are most common in North America, around the world all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and even meats, are pickled. You can pickle cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower, beets, cabbage, and more.
All you do is pour hot, salted vinegar and water over the top, let cool, cover, and let them soak a couple days in the refrigerator. Homemade pickles are often called quick pickles or refrigerator pickles.
If you’re not sensitive to salt, you don’t have high blood pressure, or you can make pickles yourself, you can enjoy the health benefits and the salty crunch of a delicious dill pickle.