Are Pickles Bad For You?

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In A Pickle: Side Effects That Sting

When it comes to its nutritional potential, pickles can be polarizing. While they do have antioxidants, probiotics, they are also high in sodium and sugar. Thus, when consumed in large quantities, pickles can mess with your blood pressure and blood sugar. People with hypertension, diabetes, renal/heart disease must limit their intake of pickles to avoid further complications.

Love the sweet and sour flavor of a good pickle but not sure if it’s good for your health? What you’re about to read may surprise you. A pickle has a lot to offer – probiotics, antioxidants, an antiglycemic effect, relief from muscular cramps and even nausea. And yet, there are reasons to be wary. Here’s why.

Watch Out For Sodium

In most cases, the pickling process involves the addition of a brine solution. So, like many preserved foods, pickles are very high in sodium. A small spear of a cucumber or kosher dill pickle packs in 283 mg of sodium. A 4-inch-long pickle boasts a whopping 1092 mg.1 To put the numbers in perspective, a normal healthy adult shouldn’t have more than 2,300 mg a day. And since sodium controls your blood volume and pressure, too much of it can cause your blood pressure to shoot up. This is a problem for anyone with health issues like hypertension or cardiovascular problems. The recommended intake for someone with kidney disease, liver cirrhosis, and heart problems is even lower than the 1,500 mg permissible for someone with high blood pressure.2 Those aged 50 and over, as well as diabetics, are also at risk of developing complications linked to salt or sodium intake.3 You can work around this by buying pickles that have low sodium.

The Bitter Side To Your Sweet Pickles

If you have a preference for sweet pickles, you may have another reason to watch how much you eat. A single 3-inch-long pickled gherkin has about 6.39 gm of sugar. And as you may know, it is unlikely you’ll eat just one!4 According to the American Heart Association, calorie intake from added sugars should be limited to 150 calories/37.5 gm for males and 100 calories/25 gm for females. It is easy to see how enjoying a few pickles might make you hit your daily limits. And given the amount of added sugars in everyday processed foods and drinks, it may be wise to treat sweet pickles with a little caution. Try your best to avoid binging on them.5

If you have blood glucose- or insulin-related problems, including type 2 diabetes, pickles should be on your list of foods to consume in controlled amounts. While moderate sugar intake is fine, carbohydrate intake should be limited to 45 to 60 grams per meal overall, according to the American Diabetes Association. This includes the sugar that you get from pickles.6 Make an effort to check labels or switch to a pickle that has less sugar. While some researchers suggest that a vinegar-based pickle can help exert antiglycemic effects in those with insulin resistance, it has yet to be established if this will help someone with type 2 diabetes.7 Most importantly, not all pickles contain vinegar. If you’re having a pure brine-based pickle, you won’t be able to get this benefit in the first place.

Sweet And Salty: What Are The Risks?

When you eat very salty foods like a pickle, it alters your sodium balance. The kidney function slows down and less water is drained from your body. In turn, this causes your blood pressure to rise. If you already have a cardiovascular problem or hypertension, this rise in blood pressure should be a red flag. It can bring on a stroke or a fatal cardiac event. And if you have kidney disease, this also increases the protein in your urine – a major issue that increases your chances of decline in kidney function.8

Research has found that sugar also raises your risk of heart disease even if you are not overweight or in ill health. The link between calories from added sugar and the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality holds true regardless of age, gender, BMI, and physical activity levels.9

What About Pickle Juice?

Some theories suggest that pickle juice can help with sports performance. However, to achieve the improved performance and thermoregulation from pickle juice, researchers suggest larger volumes may be needed. Small quantities of about 2 mL/kg did not bring any results. In one study, the time that test subjects reached exhaustion was almost identical – regardless of whether they had pickle juice, deionized water, or hypertonic saline before exercise. Core temperatures followed similar patterns, rising after exercise at a similar rate.10 In other words, you may drink the pickle juice hoping for miracles, but don’t hold your breath. All you’ll likely get is the sodium and sugar.

Even if this isn’t why you’re tanking up on pickle juice, you may have other reasons. For instance, pickle juice may ease muscular cramps, a reason that pickle juice is being avidly studied.11 The problem is the pickle juice itself contains no vegetable in it. As a result, you won’t get the nutrients from the vegetable. Instead, you will end up consuming high levels of sodium, sugar, and vinegar. At very small amounts, this may still be fine if you are of normal health. But if you’re trying to use it therapeutically or have a weakness for pickle juice, you should be cautious. This is especially true if you have issues with blood pressure or blood sugar.

Should Children Eat Pickles?

Children can eat pickles. However, stay wary of the sodium and sugar you are giving them in this form. Remember, the daily recommended intake of sodium for a child aged 4–8 years is no more than 1,900 mg. For kids aged 9–13 years this levels is 2,200 mg and for teens aged 14–18 years a maximum of 2,300 mg is suggested.12 The Centers for Disease Control actually caution that high sodium intake is already a problem in the country. 9 out of 10 kids have more sodium than they should, raising their risk of stroke and heart disease in later life. And 1 in 9 kids already has higher blood pressure than normal. It’s enough of a reason to lay off the pickles.13

If your child already has a sweet tooth, the added sugar could contribute to a weight problem. The American Heart Association suggests that kids eat no more than 25 gm of added sugars a day. That’s about 6 teaspoons worth for kids aged 2–18 years. A diet high in sugars can raise the risk of obesity and heart disease and cause high blood pressure.14

Vegetable Or Not?

Pickles were created to preserve certain foods for consumption over time, even in seasons when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. Today, however, new agricultural technology and seamless logistic connections mean access to produce from around the world all year round. Given this availability, you may do better with fresh produce rather than depending on a pickle to get your daily five servings of fruit and vegetables.

If you were to look at a pickle purely from the nutrient content, you do get the vitamins and carbohydrates the vegetable contains. So it may be fine to include it as one source of your “five a day.” Just be aware of the sugar and sodium you are consuming to avoid excessive intake of these potentially problematic nutrients. If you have health problems such as hypertension or kidney disease that could be adversely affected by regular pickle consumption, pickles are better eaten as an occasional treat.

References   [ + ]

1. Pickles, cucumber, dill or kosher dill,National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28. USDA.
2. Sodium in diet. University of Maryland Medical Center.
3, 8. Health Risks and Disease Related to Salt and Sodium. Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
4. Pickles, cucumber, sweet,National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28. USDA.
5. Johnson, Rachel K., Lawrence J. Appel, Michael Brands, Barbara V. Howard, Michael Lefevre, Robert H. Lustig, Frank Sacks, Lyn M. Steffen, and Judith Wylie-Rosett. “Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health a scientific statement from the American heart association.” Circulation 120, no. 11 (2009): 1011-1020.
6. Sugar and Desserts. American Diabetes Association.
7. Johnston, Carol S., and Cindy A. Gaas. “Vinegar: medicinal uses and antiglycemic effect.” Medscape General Medicine 8, no. 2 (2006): 61.
9. Yang, Quanhe, Zefeng Zhang, Edward W. Gregg, W. Dana Flanders, Robert Merritt, and Frank B. Hu. “Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults.” JAMA internal medicine 174, no. 4 (2014): 516-524.
10. Peikert, Jarett, Kevin C. Miller, Jay Albrecht, Jared Tucker, and James Deal. “Pre-exercise ingestion of pickle juice, hypertonic saline, or water and aerobic performance and thermoregulation.” Journal of athletic training 49, no. 2 (2014): 204.
11. Miller, Kevin C., Gary W. Mack, Kenneth L. Knight, J. Ty Hopkins, David O. Draper, Paul J. Fields, and Iain Hunter. “Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 42, no. 5 (2010): 953-961.
12. Vital Signs: Sodium Intake Among U.S. School-Aged Children — 2009–2010. CDC.
13. Salt. CDC.
14. Children should eat less than 25 grams of added sugars daily. American Heart Association.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.