Pickled Vegetables: Are They Healthy?

CoachMel Healthy Eating 16 Comments

My sister-in-law absolutely LOVES pickles.

I mean, she is crazy for them!

But, unlike so many other foods, pickled vegetables tend to avoid being asked if they’re healthy, right?

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You’ve probably lived your entire life without asking that question until now.

So, are pickles healthy?

In this article, I’m going to give you the facts, and put your mind at ease.

Or, make you feel the same guilt you feel when overindulging in ice-cream! lol

A brief history of pickles

It’s thought the first pickles were produced over 4,000 years ago using cucumbers native to India. Ever since, people around the world have touted their nutritional value, and even healing power.

And, while the idea of pickled vegetables may sound vaguely distasteful to you, this ancient form of preparation and preservation can actually give really delicious results.

Traditionally, pickling was used as a way of making sure certain foods were available throughout the year, such as during winter, or on a long journey, especially by sea.

What exactly is pickling?

The idea of pickling is to create an environment that is inhospitable to the microbes, which would normally cause food to decay.

This is usually done using a combination of salt, acid, and/or fermentation with bacteria. In some cases, spices, oil, and sugar are also added.

The benefit of using a more traditional way of pickling, though, is that lactic acid fermentation is allowed to happen.

This is the original pickling method, which has been an essential part of healthy human diets for thousands of years. It is, however, questionable whether commercially prepared pickled vegetables offer such health benefits.

Pickling Options

Pickling is very common around the world, and you will find a vast array of pickled foods, ranging from a simple pickled cucumber to pickled mussels or pickled lemons.

  • Here in the UK, you can find pickled onions, beetroot, and gherkins, which are commonly served with cold meats. A few other options are pickled eggs, cockles, mussels, red cabbage, sauerkraut, and olives.
  • In Italy, they serve a pickled vegetable dish (giardiniera), which includes onions, carrots, celery, and cauliflower.
  • The Polish traditionally pickle plums, pumpkins, and mushrooms.
  • In India, you will find various fruits and vegetables mixed with other ingredients, like spices and vegetable oils, to produce a pickled chutney.
  • In Iran, they pickle turnips, peppers, cabbage, lemons, and cauliflower.
  • The Chinese also like to pickle lots of different vegetables, including radish, Chinese cabbage, and chili pepper.
  • In Korea, one of their staple foods is kimchi, which is a spicy fermented cabbage. It is so important that many Koreans say a meal would be incomplete without it.
  • In America, some interesting pickled foods include okra, watermelon rind, pig’s feet, quail eggs, and pickled sausage.

As you can see from that list, the options are wide and varying. So, is pickling a healthy practice?

Nutrition Of Pickled Vegetables

On the one hand, the fiber in pickled vegetables is roughly the same as with cooked vegetables. Fat soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K, are also retained during pickling.

And, Korean researchers have even noted that kimchi is a very good plant source of vitamin B12. This is probably true of some other pickled vegetables, too.

Vegetables that are naturally fermented, also have the added benefit of boosting the gut’s good bacteria.

On the other hand, however, the heat required in commercial canning processes, destroys much of the vegetable’s vitamin C; while light destroys the riboflavin content.

In terms of the beneficial bacterial, it is highly unlikely that these are present in significant amounts in commercially produced pickles.

Unfortunately, many of the pickles in your  supermarket, are nothing more than cucumbers canned in a vinegar solution. This is not fermentation.

It’s also important to note that pickled foods are high in salt; so be cautious.

Let’s take a look at some of the scientific research on pickled vegetables.

Pickled Vegetables: The Research

You may have assumed that because most pickled foods are vegetables, they must be a healthy option. Unfortunately, some researchers suggest it may not be as simple as that.

Back in 2009, researchers noted that there was a two-fold increased risk of oesophageal cancer associated with the intake of pickled vegetables.

In 2010, researchers concluded that a high intake of pickled vegetables may increase gastric cancer risk, and recommended an increased intake of fresh vegetables, rather than pickled vegetables.

A later study, in 2012, suggested a potential 50 percent higher risk of gastric cancer associated with eating pickled vegetables and other pickled foods.

Once again, the message of moderation is appropriate here.

If the largest proportion of your vegetable intake comes from processed vegetables, which have been salted or pickled, rather than from fresh vegetables, the results of these studies suggest you may be putting your health at risk.

That doesn’t mean you need to avoid picked vegetables completely, though.

The studies I have mentioned focus on Asian countries, where the intake of pickled foods is much higher than what it is in the UK or America. This extremely high intake is possibly one reason why these countries show higher rates of cancer.

Healthy Ways To Eat Pickled Vegetables

One of the best ways to eat pickled vegetables, is to choose those that have been naturally fermented, and therefore contain live bacteria.

When a food is allowed to ferment naturally, it actually adds to the nutritional content, since the bacteria causing the fermentation produce B vitamins, and the bacteria helps keep the digestive tract healthy.

To get the greatest health benefits, look for fresh pickled vegetables, like sauerkraut, in the refrigerated sections of supermarkets, and natural food stores. Some delicatessens also sell them.

If you really want to be sure you’re eating something healthy, why not try making your own pickled vegetables, using traditional methods.

Kimchi and sauerkraut are good recipes to start with.

Bottom line: if you are replacing fresh vegetables with pickled vegetables most of the time, you are at an increased risk of adversely affecting your health. However, eating pickled vegetables now and again, isn’t likely to cause a problem.

 Do you eat pickled vegetables? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic…

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Comments 16

  1. vista orthodontist

    This made me rethink of pickled vegetables, I always ignore them when it’s in our dinner table. I might try my first stab with kimchi this weekend. What’s the recommended intake for pickled vegetables?

    1. Melanie

      That depends on your pickle of choice, I suppose.

      If it’s classic, store-bought versions, I’d say very little in the diet is best. But, if it’s homemade varieties like kimchi or sauerkraut then a few times each week is probably fine within the context of an otherwise healthy lifestyle, rich in fruits and vegetables of the unpickled variety.

  2. Ruth

    Really interesting article Melanie.

    It makes me be more cautious about pickles. When I was younger I could have eaten them by the jar, and did.

    I have come across a lot of oesophagael cancer in my work for Marie Curie.

    1. Melanie

      Yes it’s very serious. I suppose you tend to think that it’s a vegetable, so how bad can it be? But, once again that old message of eat as close to nature as possible, is true.

  3. Dennis

    Me and my wife just started juicein a lot of veggie’s now we have so much left over produce we started pickling. Will this defeat our purpose of trying to get healthy

  4. Lin

    Please cite your source. I’m very concerned about how accurate is your information. For one, your statement: “The studies I have mentioned focus on Asian countries, where the intake of pickled foods is much higher than what it is in the UK or America. This extremely high intake is possibly one reason why these countries show higher rates of cancer.” I just checked is not true!
    According to world cancer research fund international: Denmark, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, France and US are the countries with the most rate of cancer. As far as I know, none of them is in Asia!

  5. Kerry

    Dear, I think I may need to rethink my eating habits. I eat at least one jar of mixed pickles every other day, not to mention the pickled cabbage and beetroot which accompanies it. Even when I was Ten years old I recall having this pickle addiction, I’m now Thirty Six and nothing’s changed. My mouth waters before I even get to open the jar. Maybe I have a little problem 🙂

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