Pickles have been linked to a wide variety of health claims. You’ve likely heard someone tout pickle juice as the best hangover cure or as a perfect workout recovery drink. But how true are these claims? And are pickles actually healthy?
While pickles may be low in calories, most are very high in sodium—which can be a problem if you don’t eat them in moderation. However, pickles are thought to be great for our gut health. We took a deep dive into the world of pickles to determine if they’re worth adding to your diet.
What Are Pickles?
We are talking about pickled cucumbers for this story, but a pickle can be any fruit or vegetable that has been preserved in a brine solution of vinegar, salt, and other seasonings. Pickles are often fermented first—where good bacteria break down the fruit or vegetable’s natural sugars, giving off a pickle’s standard sour taste. However, not all pickles are fermented (we’ll get to that in a moment).
What do pickles look like nutritionally? Here is the breakdown for a one-cup serving of standard store-bought, kosher dill pickles:
- Calories: 17
- Fat: 0g
- Carbohydrates: 3.7g
- Sugars: 1.9g
- Fiber: 1.6g
- Sodium: 1,251g
- Cholesterol: 0g
- Protein: 0.9g
- Potassium: 4% DV
- Calcium: 6% DV
Yes, you read that right—there is a whopping 1,251 grams of sodium per serving, which is more than 50% of the daily recommended limit. So, while a standard 16-ounce jar of pickles will only set you back about 34 calories or so and might feel like a safe food to overindulge, it serves up more than a day’s worth of sodium, which can be concerning for those watching their blood pressure or managing a chronic condition.
Are Pickles Good for Gut Health?
It depends. Pickles are believed to be beneficial for gut health—the fermentation process allows for good bacteria to break down natural sugars, which also results in their characteristic sour taste. While fermentation is one form of pickling, not all manufacturers use that method.
Many store-bought varieties pickle by soaking cucumbers in vinegar—which may have undergone a fermentation process in its own right, but the good bacteria typically only remains if the “mother” is still in tact. That’s pretty much only the case for raw, unpasteurized forms, like in certain types of apple cider vinegar. If you’re looking for gut health benefits, make sure to choose a pickle that has undergone its own fermentation process in a saltwater brine.
Both fermented and non-fermented pickles offer a great source of Vitamin K, a crucial component for proper bone health. Fermented pickles get the green light for being gut-friendly as well as an anti-inflammatory, while non-fermented pickles can help lower blood sugar, thanks to their vinegar content.
Sodium Content of Pickles
In most cases, it’s difficult to get around buying store-bought pickles without taking in massive amounts of sodium. The high sodium content of most pickles may be concerning, as high-salt foods can increase our risk for stomach cancer, increase blood pressure, and induce bloating.
However, if you are a pickle lover (and don’t want to make your own), there’s no need to avoid them entirely. Simply pay attention to your sodium intake throughout the day if you do consume them, and try to stick to the serving size if possible.
Pickles for Hangovers and Workout Recovery
Some health experts tout pickle juice as a hangover remedy—so if you’re feeling a little woozy after a long night, it may be worth trying. Just remember there are a few things at work in a hangover: dehydration, lack of sleep, and loss of liquids from alcohol’s diuretic properties. If you’re going to take a swig from the pickle bottle, it might also be worth taking an aspirin, drinking a big glass of water, and squeezing in a nap if possible.
While both small, two studies in athletes on the potential effects of pickle juice on performance and hydration found it really isn’t that helpful for your workout. In fact, one of the studies found that pickle juice can actually dehydrate you if you aren’t careful. You’re better off fueling your workout with a drink that contains a variety of electrolytes, such as coconut water.
How to Buy the Healthiest Pickles
Finding healthy pickles is all about sodium content. Try checking a natural foods store or opt for a new brand at your local supermarket with the lowest sodium count on the shelf. If anything, you can always add more salt, but you can’t reduce what has already been added.
Your best bet for a healthier pickle is making them yourself (you knew we’d say that, didn’t you). Luckily, we have a low-commitment quick pickle recipe that will taste just as great as your favorite store-bought spears. Plus, we have plenty of pickled fruit and vegetable recipes, like zucchini, carrots, and even kohlrabi. Happy pickling!