What Pickles Can Do for Your Health

Pickles do more than add a crunchy, tangy bite to your favorite sandwich or burger. Pickled cucumbers also pack loads of vitamins and minerals in their vinegary brine.

Cucumbers are native to India, where they’ve been eaten since before written history. Christopher Columbus brought cucumbers to the Americas in the 15th century. People began pickling them about 4,000 years ago as a way to preserve them and to extend their shelf life for transport.

Today, you can pickle cucumbers yourself. Grocers sell lots of varieties, including whole dill pickles, sliced sweet pickles, and sour spears.

Nutritional Profile

Like most vegetables, pickles are almost all water and have very little fat or protein. They also have a high concentration of vitamins because the salty brine draws out the water from the pickles.

Their nutritional values vary depending on the type. For example, a whole dill pickle has about:

If you prefer a smaller serving of pickles, a half cup of sliced sweet bread and butter pickles has:

  • More than 60% of your daily value for vitamin A
  • About 1/3 of your daily requirement of vitamin K
  • About 4% of the calcium for the day
  • About 2.5% of your daily requirement of potassium

Fermented Pickles

Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, and miso can help keep your gut healthy. But most pickles on grocery shelves are not fermented, which uses yeast, bacteria, and other microbes to preserve foods. Instead, pickles often get their sharp tang from soaking in a brine of vinegar and spices.

For fermented pickles, try a health food store or make them yourself. Look for labels that say “naturally fermented.” When you open the jar, you should see bubbles on the surface, a sign of live bacteria inside.

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Health Benefits

Helps digestion. Fermented pickles are full of good bacteria called probiotics, which are important for gut health.

Fights diseases. Cucumbers are high in an antioxidant called beta-carotene, which your body turns into vitamin A. Carotene is a powerful compound that’s been shown to help lower your chances of dying of heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory diseases, and other conditions.

May ease muscle cramps. Some athletes swear by pickle juice after exercise to quickly replace lost electrolytes. One study found that pickle juice may work slightly better than water to relieve muscle cramps. But the evidence is weak.

Curb sugar spikes. Pickle juice, specifically the vinegar in it, may help keep your blood sugar levels even. That may benefit people who are at risk for diabetes.

What to Watch For

A big drawback with pickles is that they’re brimming with salt. Just one large dill pickle has more than 2/3 of the ideal amount of sodium an average adult should have for the whole day. Too much salt in your diet can raise your blood pressure, which in turn ups your chances for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease. Sodium also can leach calcium from your bones. That can weaken your bones and raises your risk for a broken bone.

How to Pickle at Home

There are two main ways to make pickles yourself. One way is to brine them in vinegar. The other way is to ferment the cucumbers with just salt and water. No matter the method, follow these general tips:

  • Pick cucumbers that are fresh, firm, and damage-free.
  • Use canning or pickling salt. Other salts cloud up the brine.
  • Add dill seed, horseradish, mustard seed, garlic, and any other spices.
  • Follow boiling and canning instructions carefully to prevent bad bacteria from growing inside.
  • Keep pickles in sealed jars for several weeks before you eat them.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on August 08, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs: “History of Pickling.”

Texas A&M University Horticultural Department: “Pickles and Salads Owe a Debt to India.”

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin A," "Calcium,” ”Potassium," "Vitamin C," "Vitamin K."

U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: “Basic Report: 11937, Pickles, Cucumber, Dill or Kosher Dill,” “Basic Report: 11940, Pickles, Cucumber, Sweet (Includes Bread and Butter Pickles).”

Exploratorium: “Fascinating Pickle Facts.”

University of Missouri Extension: “How to Pickle.”

Harvard Medical School: “Fermented Foods for Better Gut Health.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Salt and Sodium.”

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: “Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans.”

The FASEB Journal: “Frozen pickle juice reduces mealtime glycemia in healthy adults.”

Arthritis Foundation: “How to Eat Less Salt.”

Beverages: “Quality Acceptability, Nutritional Composition and Antioxidant Properties of Carrot-Cucumber Juice.”

Experimental and Clinical Sciences Journal: “An update on the potential health benefits of carotenes.”

Circulation Research: “Serum Beta Carotene and Overall Cause-Specific Mortality.”

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