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Pass The Pickles, Please

Pickles are a popular food -especially as a companion to many finger foods during the holiday season. Because we North Americans love pickles, we eat an average of 106 every year. That's about nine po...

Pickles are a popular food -especially as a companion to many finger foods during the holiday season. Because we North Americans love pickles, we eat an average of 106 every year. That’s about nine pounds! As a complement for sandwiches, they are much healthier than a handful of chips and may still satisfy our craving for a crunchy, salty snack.

What exactly is a pickle? It’s just any food that is preserved in vinegar or brine. When processed properly, pickled foods are very handy because they can be stored for a long time.

Pickling preserves food by using acid to lower its pH to less than 4.6.This acid solution prevents the growth of harmful micro-organisms (like Clostridium botulism), which can make food spoil and make people sick. As well, anti-microbial herbs and spices like garlic, mustard, dill, cinnamon or cloves can be added for flavour as well as for their ability to preserve.

This preserving acid (usually vinegar) can be added. Or, it can be produced through natural fermentation (brine) because of salt being added. For pickles, usually we think of cucumbers, but actually almost any fruit or vegetable can be pickled: beets, eggplant, carrots, turnips, green beans, cabbage, cauliflower and onions.

Most pickles are made from healthy, low-calorie foods, rich in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins (like C). Plus, when herbs (dill and garlic) as well as natural, unprocessed vinegars (cider or wine vinegar) are added, they bring added health benefits.

Today we’re going to just consider one old favourite: the dill pickle. To begin, let’s start with the nutrition of the main ingredient, the cucumber. Cucumbers aren’t packed with nutrients like many other vegetables, but they do have their benefits. They are a very good source of Vitamin C, and a good source of potassium, manganese, folate, magnesium and dietary fiber. Cucumbers also have sterols (mostly in the peel), which have been shown to lower cholesterol.

The cucumber’s natural salts, enzymes, and vitamins are great for strong cell growth and repair. Cucumbers can help control constipation, stomach disorders, arthritis, and acne. In addition, the high mineral content in cucumber peel offers a natural source of a fresh, powerful antioxidant.

The alkalinity of the cucumber helps the body maintain a proper pH balance which helps reduce health conditions caused by increased acidity. Because of its water base, the cucumber acts as a diuretic. This effect, along with its low calorie count makes the cucumber an excellent snack for dieters.

So, the question is, does the pickling process affect the nutritional value of the cucumbers? Yes, somewhat, so be selective.

To get the most nutrition out of pickles, choose the ones that have not been heated or pasteurized. These are the ones pickled in salt brine.

These are especially healthy because the lacto-fermentation process cultivates probiotic bacteria. These beneficial microbes live in the intestines and improve digestion and the immune function. Since our usual diet of processed foods and sugars combined with stress, environmental toxins and antibiotics depletes our intestinal microflora, eating probiotic foods like brine pickles (and sauerkraut and yogurt) helps build them up.

Unfortunately, instead of being made with brine, most shelf brands are made with hot vinegar to maintain sterile conditions and increase the shelf life of the product.

This is convenient for the company, but not ideal for our health. So, when choosing pickles, pick the ones from the cooler with the word ‘brine’ on the label, ones which have not been processed with heat. These have retained many of the cucumber’s nutrients.

Often, the salt content of pickles is a legitimate concern. Pickles, especially brine-cured ones have a lot of salt -359 mg in each ounce! As you know, over the past 10 years, health agencies have strongly suggested that reducing dietary sodium is good for your health. In fact, they recommend that healthy adults eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium (one teaspoon) each day. Just think, a few dill pickles would use up your salt allowance for the day.

Is that a big concern? Not for healthy adults. Now, most health professionals are becoming more individualized in their recommendations regarding salt intake. Studies have shown that healthy peoples’ bodies can regulate their own salt levels quite well. Definitely, some salt is necessary for the body to regulate fluid levels and nerve impulses.

However, if you have health issues or you’re just still concerned, read the labels and select reduced-sodium brands. For sure, snacking on a couple of dill pickles is much healthier than snacking on other typical snacks, like chips or cheezies.

Certainly, over the holiday season, lots of tasty goodies will be passed around. Instead of filling up on high-calorie sweets or high-fat snack foods, why not get yourself into a pickle. Your body will thank you. Have a dilly of a New Year!

-Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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