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.
Their nutritional values vary depending on the type. For example, a whole dill pickle has about:
- 23% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin K, which helps your blood clot and keeps your bones strong
- 21%-24% of the daily value for vitamin A, important for your vision, immune system, and a healthy pregnancy
- 7% of the calcium adults need for strong bones and teeth and healthy nerves
- 5% 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
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 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.
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.
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.