Pickle Power Picking Pickles that Pack a Nutritional Punch

Americans love the crunch and flavor of pickles. According to Pickle Packers International, we each consume 106 pickles on average per year—about nine pounds per person—mostly on sandwiches and in salads.

Snacking on a couple dill pickles is much healthier than eating sweets or a bag of salty chips.© Getty Images

A pickle refers to any food preserved in vinegar or brine. In the U.S. pickles generally refer to cucumbers, but almost any vegetable or fruit can be pickled. In Middle Eastern countries pickles accompany most meals, and include everything from eggplant to carrots, turnips to green beans.

Pickled cucumbers today vary in how they’re preserved (brine versus vinegar), what they’re flavored with and how they’re cut. The most popular, dills, are named for the herb added as seasoning; usually these are brined pickles, although often vinegar is added. Kosher dills also add garlic. Sour or half-sour pickles are brined without the addition of vinegar, and should be kept refrigerated. Half-sour pickles keep their fresh cucumber color and crisp texture. Sweet pickles are packed in a mixture of vinegar, sugar and spices that is frequently boiled. Variations are bread and butter, candied (extra sweet) and sweet hots (with peppers added).

Pickling preserves food with acid by lowering the pH to less than 4.6. The acid solution prevents the growth of harmful microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum, which causes food spoilage and illness. Antimicrobial herbs and spices like garlic, mustard, dill, cinnamon or cloves are often added.

Acid can either be added (as vinegar, which is acetic acid) or produced through natural fermentation. Pickling with vinegar and pickling with salt are completely different processes. Adding salt produces lactic acid through anaerobic fermentation; this is also called brining or corning. The resulting pickle acquires a salty and sour taste. Before refrigeration, this is how foods were preserved for long journeys or long winters.

Pickles are healthy, low-calorie foods (the average dill pickle has just 15 calories) and are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins (like C) that contribute to the five-a-day vegetable plan. The added herbs (like dill and garlic) and natural, unprocessed vinegars (like cider or wine vinegar) bring further health benefits.

The Salt Factor

Salt, however, is another story—and pickles, especially brine-cured pickles, have a lot: from 106 mg per ounce for bread-and-butter pickles to a whopping 359 mg for an ounce of brine-cured dill pickles. Health agencies worldwide advise reducing dietary sodium. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that healthy adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium—one teaspoon of salt—per day. Just one pickle spear can deliver more than 1/10th of that amount.

But while salt has been cast as the villain in heart-related issues like hypertension, this mineral is essential to many bodily functions. Sodium helps regulate body fluid levels, is important in transmitting nerve impulses and helps muscles relax and contract. We cannot live without salt, and medical literature shows that otherwise healthy people derive little benefit from re-duced-salt diets. An eight-year study of a New York City hypertensive population found those on low-salt diets had four times as many heart attacks as those on normal-sodium diets—the opposite of what scientists predicted. Dr. Suzanne Oparil, former president of the American Heart Association, feels the government may have been too quick to recommend everyone cut back on salt.

Those worried about excess salt intake can balance salty foods like pickles with lightly seasoned ones. Snacking on a couple dill pickles is much healthier than eating sweets or a bag of salty chips, and many dieters find pickles help stave off hunger pains.

When cured with brine rather than vinegar, pickles are especially healthy because the lacto-fermentation process cultivates probiotic bacteria—”live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” as defined by the World Health Organization. Lactobacillus, the bacteria responsible for lactic acid fermentation, is one of the best-known probiotics.

These beneficial microbes live in the intestines and play key roles in human digestion and immune function. Modern diets of processed foods and sugars combined with stress, environmental toxins and antibiotics deplete intestinal microflora. Eating probiotic foods like brine pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt helps replenish them.

Pickles with Benefits

To get the most nutritional value from pickles, make sure the product has not been heated or pasteurized. Pickling with salt brine does not require food to be sterile; actually, sterility kills the beneficial bacteria. The salinity and acidity of the solution, the temperature of fermentation and the absence of oxygen determine which microorganisms dominate.

Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publish-ing Co.), explains: “Most of what is sold in stores as pickles, and even what home canners pickle, are preserved in vinegar. Pickling with hot vinegar preserves by sterilization. Vinegar pickles are extremely convenient for commerce, but they are not alive. Brining creates a salty environment that limits what bacteria can grow and slows them down, but ultimately preserves with acids that the bacteria create. These pickles are alive and dynamic and cannot sit sealed in a jar on a supermarket shelf. Brined pickles are widely available if you know what you’re looking for.”

Read labels and be selective. Buy brined products that contain live or active cultures and have not been processed with heat. Look for fermented foods at local farms, ethnic markets, health food stores and gourmet shops. Ethnic delis or restaurants (German, Polish or Korean) may also carry brined pickles. Or, make your own. Home canning kits and instructions are readily available online.

Brining not only preserves vegetables, it also makes them more digestible and nutritious. Despite their high sodium content, fermented veggies like pickles and sauerkraut are both healthy and tasty. Crisp, cool and salty, they make a great snack on a hot summer day.