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Picking Pickles: A Sour And Healthy Snack?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 5, 2023

Everything we eat has some effect on our body, whether it’s a healthy meal, guilty pleasures like candy or pastry, or nothing at all–some for better, and some for worse. This is what makes “watching what you eat” so hard for many–there is no such thing as sneaking a snack that your own body won’t notice. On the other hand, though, it does let us find health benefits in unlikely places. 


As Edgar Allan Poe taught the world with The Purloined Letter, the least likely place for anyone to look for something is right in front of them. This remains true for nutrition as well–although the search for a “superfood” with no negative side effects has enraptured the world’s weight loss industry, there are plenty of benefits to be had from foods that we already consider staples. 


Pickles, for example, are often overlooked as a side dish or relish of sorts. We serve them with all manner of other dishes, but rarely consider their nutritional effect as part of a meal – an unfortunate state of affairs, considering the health benefits being overlooked.

First and foremost, pickles are cucumbers–a vegetable with high water content and negligible starch or calories. This makes them both an excellent regulator for the kidneys and liver and a hydrator for the rest of the body. As most pickles are prepared in vinegar, one can also use them to improve hemoglobin levels in the bloodstream and as a digestive boost for people with diabetes – the acetic acids in pickles serve both purposes. 


Pickles prepared without vinegar, such as fermented slat varieties, have their own advantages. Benign bacteria in the digestive tract is essential to the proper function of the stomach and intestines but can be seriously reduced when a patient takes antibiotics. Fermented pickles stimulate the remaining bacteria to reproduce, repairing the damage faster and keeping the digestive system functioning normally.

One health benefit of pickles–or rather, pickled foods–has dated back to the days of the legendary Captain Cook. Intent on longer voyages than the civilized world had ever seen and rightfully concerned about a scurvy outbreak on his ships, he ordered his men to supplement their diets with pickled cabbage (known today as sauerkraut). Centuries later, pickled vegetables remain an excellent boost of the vitamins A, C, and K that were so often lacking on naval vessels, along with minerals like iron, calcium, and potassium. 


It is important to note that while pickles are an often overlooked source of some exceptional health benefits, there are some cases in which to avoid them. Those suffering from acid reflux or similar conditions may want to steer clear of pickles prepared in vinegar. Individuals with high blood pressure should avoid salted pickles; the saline content can cause hypertension and exacerbate existing blood pressure issues. Some pickles are prepared in an oil-based brine as opposed to the more common water base; this brine adds significant amounts of fat and cholesterol to the body and should be drained before consumption.

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