In case you’ve been wondering if your pickle obsession is feeding your gut health like other fermented foods do.
It’s tough to resist the salty, tangy crunch of a pickle—the perfect addition to a sandwich, tuna salad, or straight from the jar. But considering the ties between gut-health and pickled or fermented foods, does this classic burger-topper count as a gut-healthy pick? Let’s explore how fermented foods impact our gut microbiome, and whether pickles—and the way they’re prepared—are included as a good food for supporting the gut.
Are Pickles Healthy? There Are Pros and Cons
They’re low in macronutrients.
The classic pickles we think of are made from cucumbers, so their nutrition profiles are quite similar. Cucumbers are full of plant compounds, including beta carotene, that are both potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. Pickles offer minimal value in the way of macronutrients, including protein, fat, and carbohydrates—the primary nutrients we need in the largest amounts—which translates to low calorie content.
But high in vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins K, C, and A.
But when it comes to micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, pickles have a lot to offer. In fact, 1 cup of kosher or dill pickles provides up to 70 percent of your daily needs of vitamin K! Vitamin K plays an important role in blood-clotting and healthy bone formation. Pickles are also a good source of immune-boosting vitamin C, vitamin A for eye health (and more).
Pickles provide some potassium, a mineral that’s super-important for fluid balance in the body (potassium is an electrolyte, a category of minerals that support hydration, among other essential processes).
A Bit of Fiber
Pickles are veggies, and all plant foods contain some fiber. This fiber helps maintain digestive regularity (hello, gut health) and can also aid in lowering cholesterol levels.
They’re very high in sodium—so don’t overdo it.
A final micronutrient pickles really deliver on—sadly, not in a good way—is sodium. Every day we need a small amount of sodium to carry out vital functions in the body. As a primary electrolyte, sodium plays a central role in fluid balance while also helping to transport oxygen and nutrients. However, we only need less than 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day to carry out these functions. Compare this to the 4,000 to 10,000 mg of sodium that many Americans consume each day, and, Houston, we have a problem.
Depending on a variety of factors, a typical sodium recommendation is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 mg of sodium per day. When we go past that on a regular basis, it can lead to increased risk for elevated blood pressure or hypertension, putting undue stress on the heart. One cup of pickles contains a staggering 1,200 mg of sodium, putting a large dent in a typical daily allowance of salt (unfortunately, it’s part of what makes them so delicious).
Because pickles contain minimal carbohydrates, some feel that they’re a great snack for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, since they won’t cause a spike in blood sugars. However, considering the sodium content of this crunchy snack, and the fact that those with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease and hypertension, that recommendation may not be all that sound.
Not All Pickles Are Technically Fermented
You may have heard that pickled or fermented foods are extremely beneficial to our gastrointestinal (GI) health—so are pickles on this list of gut-healthy ingredients? It depends. One important, determining factor is how the pickle was made—mainly whether the pickle in question was actually made using the slow, natural process of fermentation (vs. being quick-pickled in a vinegar brine).
Fermentation is a preservation method that’s been utilized for thousands of years by civilizations all over the world, with evidence of its use dating as far back as 10,000 BCE. In technical terms, fermentation occurs when microorganisms, like bacteria, conduct metabolic processes that create desirable changes in a food or beverage. These changes could be improving flavor, shelf life, or health benefits. The bacteria that does the work during fermentation will remain in the food or beverage, so when you consume it, you’ll be getting a dose of healthy bacteria (which your own body loves).
Many pickles that you’ll find in the grocery store won’t be fermented and will rather be created using a brine—which means they don’t provide those good gut bacteria like fermented pickles do. A typical brine for pickles will include salt, vinegar, and water and may have additions of herbs, spices, and sugar. The salt and vinegar in the brine will offer preservation power and a tangy flavor, similar to fermentation, and the pickles themselves contain those micronutrients mentioned above, but not the additional live probiotics formed during true fermentation.
To figure out which grocery store brands make their pickles via fermentation, and which have been brined in vinegar (which is technically fermented, but does not contain probiotics), check the label for ingredients and any messaging that describes their pickling method. Seeing “vinegar” on the ingredient list is often a good indicator that they aren’t fermented, but pickled, getting their sour snap from the acidic vinegar, salt, and other flavorings. Whereas some jars, like Krüegermann’s Naturally Fermented Dills and Bubbies Kosher Dill Pickles, will proudly boast their slow-fermentation process with probiotics and/or won’t have vinegar listed as an ingredient. These pickles develop their tangy tartness due to microbe activity that is the result of the process of fermentation.
Why Fermented Foods Help Fuel Gut Health
The gut microbiome is a group of over a trillion microorganisms that live in our intestinal tract. These microorganisms—mainly including bacteria, but also some fungi and viruses—play a vital role in digestion as well as the absorption and creation of nutrients in the body. You may be familiar with the other name for these healthy bacteria for our gut health: probiotics. Many fermented foods are natural sources of live probiotics, which help restore or maintain the health of our gut microbiome. (Not all fermented foods and drinks contain probiotics though: vinegar, alcohol, and baked sourdough bread do not, for example.)
But increasing evidence shows that the gut microbiome supports far more than just our digestion and metabolism. One amazing process that the biome facilitates is what’s called the gut-brain axis through a variety of different pathways. This translates to the microbiome’s influence, either positive or negative (depending on its health), on mood and a variety of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.
It has also been found that the gut microbiome is involved in the expression of a variety of chronic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, liver disease, and kidney disease. Plus, fermented foods are great immune boosters as they have natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antifungal benefits. And this exciting research is just getting started.
How to Eat More Fermented Foods
Since the majority of classic pickles you’d buy at the supermarket don’t technically contain those powerful probiotics, there are some emerging brands that are offering fermented pickles in grocery stores, including Cleveland Kitchen. You’ll likely find fermented pickles in the refrigerated section. Both Cleveland Kitchen and Bubbies also offer delicious sauerkraut options—another naturally fermented veggie (cabbage) to include in your diet.
While pickles are a low calorie, plant-based option full of vitamin K, they can be laden with sneakily high amounts of sodium (and sometimes sugar), and many brands aren’t fermented with probiotics. But enjoyed in moderation, especially if they are fermented, pickles are a delicious addition to a balanced lifestyle—and your spicy chicken sandwich.
Easy Recipes With Pickles
Day Dill Pickles
Smash Burgers and Oven Fries
Crispy Chicken Sandwiches With Pickle Dijon
Chicken Pickle Piccata
Tomato Salad With Dill Pickle Relish Vinaigrette
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