What Pickles Can Do for Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 25, 2023
5 min read

Pickles, or cucumbers preserved in vinegar, 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.

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 their type. For example, a whole dill pickle has about:

  • 20% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin K, which helps your blood clot and keeps your bones strong
  • 6% of the calcium adults need for strong bones and teeth and healthy nerves
  • 2% of your daily requirement of potassium, which helps your nerves work right
  • 3%-4% of your daily requirement of vitamin C, an antioxidant that protects your cells from damage
  • 1% of the daily value of vitamin A, important for your vision, immune system, and a healthy pregnancy

Pickles also contain phosphorous and folate. Cucumber pickles are a great source of the antioxidant beta-carotene. Beta-carotene has been linked to a lower risk of a number of chronic conditions, including age-related macular degeneration and type 2 diabetes.

If you prefer a smaller serving of pickles, 1/2 cup of sliced sweet bread and butter pickles has:

  • More than 3% of your daily value of vitamin A
  • About 1/3 of your daily requirement of vitamin K
  • About 4% of the calcium for the day
  • About 2% of your daily requirement of potassium

Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, and miso can help keep your gut healthy. But most pickles on grocery shelves are not fermented, wherein yeast, bacteria, and other microbes are used 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.

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

Fight 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 shows 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 of diabetes.

Reduce cell damage. Antioxidants in pickles have a number of benefits. The way they reduce damage-causing free radicals appears to have minor effects on general health. Studies show that regularly eating foods with beta-carotene may help improve thinking in people over age 65. These same studies show that eating diets high in antioxidants is more effective than simply taking antioxidant supplements. This makes pickles an excellent resource for people looking to get more antioxidants naturally.

Aid weight loss. Cucumber pickles are a low-calorie food. Because of their high water content, they may help you feel fuller longer. Pickles also contain vinegar, which has been linked to reduced appetite. Vinegar may slow the rate at which your digestive system absorbs carbohydrates. This can also help reduce insulin spikes, keeping your energy levels stable and reducing the insulin drop that triggers hunger.

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 of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease. Sodium also can leach calcium from your bones. This can weaken your bones and raises your risk of a broken bone.

Blood pressure concerns

Pickles are very high in sodium because it's an important part of the brining process. Consuming too much salt in your daily diet can contribute to high blood pressure. Anyone who is on blood pressure medication or looking to reduce their sodium intake should eat pickles in moderation or look for low sodium options.

Liver and kidney stress

Eating too much sodium can cause your kidneys and liver to work harder. Also, the high blood pressure that often follows diets high in sodium puts even more stress on these organs. As a result, eating too many pickles may be risky for anyone with liver disease or kidney conditions.

Higher risk of gastric cancer

Diets high in sodium may increase your risk of gastric cancer. High salt intake may damage your stomach directly, leading to cancer, or it may lead to infections and ulcers that eventually become cancerous.

Increased risk of osteoporosis

Diets high in sodium may be connected to an increased risk of osteoporosis. If you are not getting enough calcium, high amounts of sodium can further leach the mineral out of your bones, leading to weaker bones and a risk of osteoporosis.

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 you use, 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.