Pickling is an ancient food preservation technique. People can make pickles from almost any food but, for many, pickles are synonymous with pickled cucumbers.
People preserve some pickles in a fermented brine that contains beneficial bacteria, which means they can be a good addition to a healthful diet.
Fermented pickles offer more health benefits than other pickles. Even unfermented pickles, however, are rich in vitamins such as vitamin K and vitamin A.
Read on to learn more about the health benefits of pickles, as well as how to make them at home.
Pickles are fat-free and low in calories, but they are also low in most other nutrients, except for sodium.
People with high blood pressure or cardiovascular health issues may want to avoid pickles.
The main benefit of pickles is that some pickles contain beneficial bacteria. People use brine to make pickles. Brine is water mixed with salt or an acid, such as vinegar.
Fermented brine contains good bacteria that may improve health, but only some brines go through the fermentation process.
Fermented pickles act like probiotics, protecting the body’s microbiome and supporting the growth of healthful bacteria in the gut.
The stomach contains millions of bacteria that help the body digest and absorb food. These bacteria may prevent yeast infections, help with diarrhea and constipation, and potentially aid the treatment of chronic stomach health issues, such as Crohn’s disease.
Fermented pickles are probiotic-rich, so they may help improve digestion and prevent minor stomach issues.
Some limited research suggests that probiotics may offer other health benefits, including:
- reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety
- treating cavities and gingivitis
- managing diabetes
- preventing or treating allergies
- reducing urinary tract infections
- lowering the risk of some cancers, such as colon cancer
Research into these benefits is still in the early stages. Researchers have to conduct more, larger trials before there can be any certainty about the long-term health effects of probiotics.
In addition to fermented pickles containing probiotics, pickles may offer these other health benefits:
Restoring electrolyte balance
Electrolytes are salts that the body needs for healthy functioning. When a person experiences dehydration, they may also lose electrolytes.
Pickles are high in sodium, and so they are also high in electrolytes. Theoretically, this suggests that pickle juice might be an option for restoring electrolytes to people who have a fever, are vomiting, or who are dehydrated.
Some athletes swear by pickle juice to restore their electrolytes following a workout. There is no evidence that drinking pickle juice is a better option than water or electrolyte drinks. However, for someone who enjoys pickle juice, a small amount may be a tasty alternative.
Treating muscle cramps
Researchers electrically induced muscle cramps in well-hydrated men once and then a week later. They found that participants who drank pickle juice rapidly gained relief from their cramps.
Deionized water did not offer the same benefits, which means that electrolytes and hydration status alone did not explain the result. This suggests that something else about pickles may help with muscle cramps rather than the water content or the electrolytes.
Controlling blood sugar
Pickles that use a vinegar-based brine may help control blood glucose. Stable blood glucose levels can help prevent feelings of intense hunger. Preventing blood glucose spikes is also critical to the health of people with diabetes.
A small 2013 study followed 14 healthy adults at risk of type 2 diabetes. Those participants who consumed vinegar at mealtime had lower fasting blood glucose levels than those who did not.
More research is necessary to determine the extent of the benefits and the safest amount of vinegar to consume. However, people who are interested in a relatively easy way to help control blood sugar could consider eating pickles or another vinegar-rich food with meals.
Similarly to all fruits and vegetables, pickles contain antioxidants.
Free radicals are chemicals in the body that may play a role in the development of a wide variety of health issues. These issues include cancer, inflammation, heart disease, and various chronic diseases. Free radicals may also contribute to aging.
Numerous studies have linked antioxidants to better health. For example, a 2017 Cochrane review found that antioxidant supplements might slow age-related macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness.
To get the most benefits from pickles, it is important to know what is in them. People should carefully read the nutrition label while asking the following:
- Is this a fermented food? Only fermented pickles offer probiotic benefits, such as a reduced risk of yeast infections and better gut health.
- Do the pickles contain vinegar? Vinegar may help control blood sugar.
- What is the sodium content of these pickles? Lower sodium foods are a better choice for almost everyone. Lower sodium content also means it is safer to eat more pickles.
There are many ways to make pickles so people can experiment with different methods. The right combination of seasonings and spices can make a big difference, as can choosing the right cucumbers.
Some people, for example, love pickling small cucumbers to make Mexican sour gherkins. Others may prefer slicing long cucumbers and making pickles to put into sandwiches.
This simple recipe is a great place to start:
- Add 3 to 4 cloves of garlic and ¼ to ½ cup of dill to a mason jar.
- Place 8 to 12 small cucumbers into the jar, stacking them to minimize space between cucumbers.
- Add water until all cucumbers are fully covered.
- Pour the water back out of the jar into a measuring cup, then add ¾ tablespoon of sea salt for every cup of water. Stir until the salt dissolves, then pour the mixture back into the jar.
- Tightly seal the jar and store it somewhere with a constant room temperature. The pickles must remain submerged. If they do not, try adding another vegetable to the top to keep them under the water. If the pickles do not stay under water, they will go moldy.
- After 3 days, move the jar to the refrigerator. The pickles should be ready to eat.
People who are pregnant or who have weakened immune systems because of chemotherapy, immunosuppressant drugs, or HIV should not eat homemade pickles.
Homemade pickles may contain dangerous bacteria that increase the risk of illness. Anyone at risk of illness should consider enjoying pickles only from a reputable, regulated source.
No single food can cure a disease or correct multiple health problems. Pickles are not a miracle food. But for people who enjoy the taste, they can be an excellent addition to a nutritious diet.
People with health conditions such as diabetes, metabolic disorders, or nutritional imbalances, should talk to a doctor or dietitian before making significant changes to their diet.