Are Pickles Good For You? A Registered Dietician Tells All
Salty snack or a big barrel of health benefits? It's a bit of both.
Pickles have been a New York street food staple since the 1930’s, when the Lower East Side had at least 80 pickle vendors in business at the time. But outside of adding a few to burger buns at summer barbecues, we haven’t seen this much interest in pickles in a long time—until now. Their reported health benefits, coupled with our demand for potent flavors (like Sriracha sauce and bacon) have created one of the latest fermented food obsessions. Here, we've outline their health benefits in case you want to eat them for more than just their crave-worthy crunch.
Fermented foods are preserved using an age-old process that not only boosts the food’s shelf life and nutritional value, but can also give your body a dose of healthy probiotics, live microorganisms that are crucial to healthy digestion.
The fermentation process, in which pickles sit in water and salt for many days and are fermented by Lactobacillus bacteria (which normally cover the cucumber's skin), are what gives pickles their sour taste. The jars of pickles you can buy off the shelf at the supermarket are sometimes pickled using vinegar and not the natural fermentation process using live organisms, which means they don’t contain probiotics. To ensure the fermented foods you choose do contain probiotics, look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label.
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Muscle Cramp Relief
Recent research has shown that muscle cramps can be resolved in a minute-and-a-half by drinking 1.5 oz of pickle juice for every 100 lb (1 ml/kg) of body weight. Recovery was 36% faster than after drinking plain water, and 45% faster than after consuming no liquid at all. Researchers suggested that something in the pickle juice might trigger a reflex in the mouth, sending a signal to the nerves to stop cramping, but more studies are needed to confirm this.
Increased Sports Performance
The theory here is that the high sodium content of pickle juice helps increase hydration and therefore performance. Additionally, drinking pickle juice after exercise is supposed to be beneficial. While some studies have shown that pickle juice helped increase water intake and blood levels of sodium after exercise, other studies showed no effects. In the end, it looks as if small amounts of pickle juice will not help in this area.
Blood Sugar Control
Vinegar has been shown to improve the body’s response to insulin and significantly reduce blood sugar after meals, so it makes sense that the vinegar found in commercially prepared pickle juice may help lower blood sugar levels. Thus far, only one study to date has shown that pickle juice can reduce blood sugar spikes after meals. Pickle juice may also lower blood sugar levels by slowing digestion after a meal.
A Note on Sodium
One thing to keep in mind is that even if you want to include a few pickles or pickle juice in your diet, it is still a high sodium food and should be used judiciously. But if you do not have any health problems and can tolerate salt, then do not feel guilty about packing in the pickles (in moderation, of course).