Thin-sliced and slid into a burger patty. Speared and served with a sandwich. Straight from the barrel. If you love pickles, there are endless ways to enjoy ’em. But are these salty stalks good for you? Are pickles healthy? Let’s find out.
Are pickles healthy?
“It depends on what you mean by healthy,” says registered dietician Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting, author of Read It Before You Eat It. If you define healthy as low-calorie, low-carb, low-sugar, no-fat, or cholesterol-free, then yes, pickles are healthy. “One serving of pickles only has 17 calories, 3.7 grams of carbs, 1.9 grams of sugar, and no cholesterol or fat,” she says.
But, if you are someone who needs to watch their sodium intake due to a pre-existing health condition like hypertension, high blood pressure, or diabetes, pickles would not be considered healthy for you, she says. “The average pickle can have upwards of 1200 grams of sodium, which is more than the recommended daily upper-intake of 2,300mg ” says Taub-Dix.
In fact, most nutritionists’ main rub with pickles is their sodium content. “Most people get more than enough sodium in their diet, due to high intake of processed and restaurant foods,” she says. And according to research, the risks associated with excessive sodium intake include stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and stomach cancer. Yikes.
The type of pickle matters
Generally, the term “pickle” refers to pickled cucumbers. But do you know what it means to pickle something? Pickling is done to food in order to preserve its shelf life, or to alter the food’s taste, explains functional nutrition counselor and chef Amy Spindel MSSW, founder of Food with Thought and teacher of food fermentation classes throughout Texas.
“Cucumbers can be pickled either by fermenting the vegetable in a salty brine, or by immersing it in vinegar,” she says. Which of these two processes the crunchy green stalk goes through ultimately affects how healthy the pickle is. “Pickles that are fermented pack a much greater nutritional punch, compared to pickles that are sitting in vinegar,” she says.
Why are fermented cukes so much healthier? Well, Spindel says, “The fermentation process ushers in a progression of bacteria into the food.” The phrase ‘bacteria into the food’ might gross you out. But these are actually good bacteria! “Also called probiotics, these bacteria are fantastic for digestive health. They support the pH of your gut microbiome, compete with pathogenic bacteria, and support a balanced immune response,” she says. Probiotics have also been linked to improved mental wellbeing, the improved ability to handle allergies, and reduced yeast infection frequency in vagina-owners prone to getting them.
Pickles packed in vinegar are a different story. Is it fine to have one or two at your Fourth of July BBQ and one on the last day of summer? Of course. Anything in moderation is a-ok. But generally, vinegar pickles aren’t a healthy pick. Why? Because while vinegar is a good preservation, “most pickles packed with vinegar have lots of other preservatives like calcium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium benzoate, and other preservatives, and may additionally use artificial colors,” says Spindel. Plus, these pickles don’t have any of the probiotic contents that fermented pickles do.
Do pickles have any additional health benefits?
Pickles are just cukes that have undergone a special process. While the pickling process alters their nutrient profile somewhat, pickles contain more-or-less the same essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that cucumbers do: vitamin K, vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin E, and fiber.
Beyond that, in some cases, pickles’ high sodium content is actually a good thing. Taub-Dix explains: Sodium is an electrolyte, and our body needs electrolytes to operate at its most optimal level. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes. Sweat buckets, you lose a lot of electrolytes, which she says can result in muscle cramps. And that’s where pickles—or more specifically pickle juice comes in. According to one 2010 study published in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, ingesting pickle juice can relieve muscle cramps in as little as 35 seconds.
Are other pickled veggies any different?
Not really! While the vitamin, antioxidant, mineral content and taste will depend on the thing being pickled, Spindel says from a health standpoint, other pickled veggies are similar to pickles. “If they are pickled in vinegar they will not have the probiotic benefit, and if they are fermented in brine, salt, and water, then they will,” she says.
Picking the healthiest pickle
Up to do a little “cooking” (aka pickling)? According to Spindel, pickles that you DIY are almost always healthier than those that you buy. Plus, “they only take about 5 to 10 minutes of hands-on time and cost about $5 total for a quart.” Easy and cheap? Sold!
Erring on the side of store-bought for convenience? Head to the refrigerator section. Then, look for an unpasteurized variety, since the pasteurization process can actually kill off probiotics, according to Spindel.
Oh, and don’t shy away from fun and funky flavors! “Herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, chilis, basil, turmeric, peppercorn, and bay leaves can make your pickle even healthier by increasing the amount of powerful phytonutrients, antioxidants, and antimicrobials in the jar,” she says.
The bottom line on pickles
Pickles—especially fermented pickles—can occasionally be a part of a healthy diet. Just don’t chow-down a dill daily. As Taub-Dix says, “I would never call pickles a health food, but in moderation pickles are fine. Luckily when it comes to pickles, a little goes a long way.”
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