Are Pickles Healthy? Here's What a Nutritionist Says
I'm a pickle lover. I find the sourness, salt, and crunch to be uniquely satisfying—either solo or in a variety of dishes. But a question I'm often asked by fellow pickle-loving clients is: Are pickles healthy? They can be, but there are a few things to keep in mind when looking for pickles with potential health benefits. Here's the lowdown on this classic condiment, from my nutritionist viewpoint.
Pickle nutrition facts
Pickles start as cucumbers, so much of their nutritional value is tied to this non-starchy veggie. One dill pickle spear has just 5 calories and a negligible amount of vitamins and minerals—the exception being vitamin K. A single spear provides about 7% of the daily need for this nutrient, which helps with bone health and proper blood clotting.
One whole dill pickle—about the equivalent of four spears—provides a bit more nutrition, including immune-supporting vitamin A, and a small percent of the daily target for calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.
RELATED: Is Pickle Juice Good for You?
Pickles and sodium
Keep in mind that pickles are generally high in sodium. In fact, just one spear has over 300 mg, or about 13% of the daily recommended limit for healthy adults. If you have high blood pressure or are sensitive to sodium, be sure to check the sodium content on your pickle's Nutrition Facts label so that you can moderate your sodium intake.
That means you'll want to double check the suggested serving size to assess the sodium content in the overall portion you eat. For example, if the label says that a 1-ounce serving—or half of a whole pickle—provides 270 mg of sodium and you eat the whole pickle, your sodium intake jumps to 540 mg, about a quarter of the daily advised cap.
Potential probiotic benefits
There are two ways to transform cucumbers into pickles. Standard pickling involves preserving cucumbers in salt, with or without tangy acid, like vinegar, and other possible ingredients, such as sugar and seasonings. Pickles can also be made by fermentation. In the latter process, naturally occurring bacteria grow over a few weeks' time to produce lactic acid, which gives pickles their characteristic sourness. These bacteria include Lactobacillus, a beneficial probiotic linked to improved immune function, better digestion, and enhanced nutrient absorption. Note: most pickles sold at supermarkets are not fermented, so if you're interested in probiotic perks, look for pickles specifically labeled as fermented or probiotic.
Even if you aren't looking for probiotic benefits from your pickles, take a moment to scan the ingredient list before adding a jar to your cart. Some brands are made with all-natural ingredients, such as a simple combination of cucumbers, water, vinegar, and spices. But others include additives you personally might not want, such as artificial colors and preservatives.
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Cucumbers
Pickle juice and muscle cramps
As a board-certified sports dietitian, I'm often asked about pickles and pickle juice as a source of electrolytes or as a tool to prevent muscle cramps. A few studies have explored the use of pickle juice for athletes, yielding mixed results.
An older study published in the Journal of Athletic Training that involved just nine men concluded that small quantities of pickle juice did not substantially increase blood electrolyte concentrations. The researchers reported that it's doubtful that pickle juice would relieve exercise-associated muscle cramps because the juice would be unlikely to replace the amount of sodium lost in sweat and because acetic acid, a component of vinegar, delays stomach emptying, which would slow nutrient absorption.
Meanwhile, a different study found that pickle juice did inhibit cramps that were produced via electrical stimulation in dehydrated men. However, scientists said the effect couldn't be explained by the juice's ability to replenish fluids or electrolytes. Rather, they theorized that the juice's acetic acid may alert the brain to tell a muscle to stop contracting and relax.
How to add more pickles to your diet
Pickles are much more versatile than you might think. Apart from serving them as a condiment on burgers and sandwiches, minced pickles can be added to chilled protein salads made from egg, tuna, chicken, or chickpea. Pickles can also be enjoyed in hummus, potato salad, atop a Bloody Mary, on pizza, even in grilled cheese and peanut butter sandwiches. If you're an adventurous eater, check out pickle dessert options, which have been trending in recent years. Out-of-the-box treats include pickles drizzled with whipped maple cream, chocolate-covered pickles, pickle ice cream, and even pickle cupcakes.
If you're interested in learning how to make your own pickles, seek out info from a university agricultural extension or look for a class at a local culinary school.
Bottom line: as long as the high sodium content isn't an issue for your personal health, fermented pickles that provide probiotics may offer benefits tied to these friendly microbes. Conventional pickles without "good" bacteria are low in calories, and while they aren't nutrient powerhouses, they do provide a decent amount of vitamin K. Enjoy them in moderation to satisfy a salt and crunch craving.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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