The Health Benefits of Homemade Pickles
Homemade pickles add an addictive crunchy tang to sandwiches, cheese boards and meals from around the world. But are they good for us too? We asked BANT registered nutritionist Eva Humphries to fill us in on the health benefits of pickled fruits and veg.
Have pickles always been an important source of nutrition?
With the now constant year-round availability of fruit and vegetables, it’s hard to comprehend a time when finding fresh produce was more challenging. Rewind the clock a few hundred years and cookery schools were more likely to advertise pickling classes than the raw food mastery of our current era. On a basic level, pickling was a way of preserving seasonal produce of “dietary significance”. Cockles, walnuts and eggs often made the jar too alongside vegetables. Captain James Cook famously supplemented the diet of sailors onboard HMS Endeavour with sauerkraut (recorded as “sour krout”) to stave off scurvy. His fermented cabbage successfully made the three-month journey and no dangerous cases of scurvy were reported during the voyage.
Should we all still be eating pickles more regularly?
Whilst pickles may not have quite as heroic a significance these days, they are still a very worthy component of many meals. Pickling strategies, such as chutney-making, brining, fermenting and pickling in vinegar, can enhance and add variety to most dishes. Plus there are a number of great health benefits.
What are the main health benefits?
Vinegar based pickles in particular may give the digestive system a leg-up when it comes to breaking down large, protein-rich meals. To fully explain this, and without revoking bad memories of GCSE or O Level Biology, just imagine a steak, burger or other high-protein foodstuff. With a bit of luck, you’ll chew the food thoroughly before swallowing it, after which it travels to the stomach. Aside from killing off any unwanted bugs, the high acid content of the stomach starts breaking down proteins, allowing them to be digested more efficiently further down the digestive tract. Although pickles won’t replace this mechanism, they do contribute some acid which may make it easier to stomach that steak. Generally, this could translate to less bloating than if you were to eat the same meal without a side of pickles.
Are pickles also a source of good bacteria?
Dependant on the pickling process, the probiotic potential could contribute a further digestion enhancing aspect. As humans, we are home to trillions of beneficial microorganisms that hang out predominantly in our gut. These feast on the fibre we can’t digest and help to keep our gut healthy. If, for some reason, their population is out of whack, we tend to not be so well ourselves. That’s why it’s useful to top up the populations of beneficial microbes every now and then and eat a bit more fibre. Natural pickles are a source of fibre and can also contain these good, gut-boosting organisms but only if they have been made with raw vinegar and left to stand at room temperature.
So not all pickles contain probiotics?
The usual boiling process for commercially produced pickles is likely to destroy the probiotic potential. If you want to enjoy the health benefits of pickles, it’s much better to get making traditional ones at home!
Why aren’t the health benefits of pickles talked about more?
For various reasons, pickles haven’t been much of a hot topic in the world of nutrition and food research. Maybe they are too obvious or just not quite exotic enough. The realm of health foods can be a confusing place sometimes, full of unpronounceable berries from the Amazon and various powdered products that we can’t even begin to understand how to use. I believe it’s time to switch the focus from exotic ingredients to trusty British products that have kept us in tip top condition for generations.
Is there evidence that pickles are good for us?
More evidence is required but many papers are positive about the benefits of eating pickles. What is widely agreed is that antioxidants are present in pickles made from raw fruits and vegetables, and that antioxidants are beneficial for human health. Broadly speaking, antioxidants are vital for the prevention of day to day damage to tissues by free radicals. The body naturally makes a small amount of antioxidants but we all need to top our levels up by eating antioxidant-rich foods. Eating pickled vegetables counts as one of your ten-a-day too (we need more than five-a-day if you read the latest research) and helps us meet our vitamins and mineral requirements. Pickled gherkins, for example, contain good doses of Vitamin K, Vitamin A and calcium as well as some iron, magnesium and thiamine, amongst other nutrients. Pickles left to ferment as part of the pickling process may even become more nutritious thanks to the accumulation of B vitamins during fermentation.
Given that our diets are crying out for the addition of more nutrients, pickled foods can be the answer to more dietary vitamins and minerals. Whether you are considering them from the perspective of digestion or overall wellbeing, traditional homemade pickles are a nutritious – and very tasty – addition to a plate.
Eva Humphries is a practising registered nutritionist and member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). She specialises in nutritional therapy for type 2 diabetes and cancer. Find out more at www.wholefoodwarrior.co.uk.