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Are pickles good for you? Just 1 spear is packed with these vitamins and minerals

Love them or hate them, pickles are a classic salty, sour snack. But are they good for you? Experts discuss the health benefits and risks.
Pickles
Valeriia Mitriakova / Getty Images / iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY

Love them or hate them, pickles are having a moment. The salty, crunchy snack is a refrigerator staple, and it seems like everyone is making their own at home and sharing the results on social media.

"Pickles" usually refers to pickled cucumbers, though many other vegetables and fruits can be pickled. A cucumber becomes a pickle after it has been preserved in a solution of vinegar, or salt and water. This technique gives the pickle its signature salty, sour, tangy bite.

Are pickles good for you? And is it healthy to eat pickles every day? We spoke to experts to find out.

Pickles nutrition overview

The nutritional content of pickles will vary depending on the type, shape, flavor and brand. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one serving of the standard, store-bought dill or kosher dill cucumber pickles provides:

  • 5 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 0.3 grams of fiber
  • 325 milligrams of sodium
  • 0.5 grams of sugar

One serving of pickles is about 1 ounce, which is equivalent to one spear or one-third of a large, whole dill pickle, registered dietitian nutritionist Frances Largeman-Roth tells TODAY.com.

The serving size of pickles may vary depending on the size or cut of the pickle, but generally it ranges around 28 grams to 40 grams. If the pickles are in sliced or chip form, that's about five slices.

Sweet pickles, often called “bread and butter pickles,” contain higher amounts of sugar and more calories than the standard dill variety, Largeman-Roth adds.

Pickles generally fall into two categories depending on how they are made.

Vinegar pickles

Most commercially sold dill pickles you find at the grocery store have been pickled in a vinegar brine, says Largeman-Roth. The brine also contains water, salt, sugar and spices, but it's the acidic vinegar that makes the difference.

"They are then pasteurized to kill off any harmful bacteria, which also kills any probiotic bacteria," Largeman-Roth adds. (Probiotics are microorganisms found in fermented foods that promote healthy bacteria growth in the body.)

Vinegar pickles are shelf-stable but require refrigeration after opening.

Quick pickles prepared at home also fall into vinegar-pickle category because they're usually made by putting fresh cucumbers into a solution of salt, vinegar and seasonings for a shorter period of time, Largeman-Roth explains.

Fermented pickles

Fermented pickles have been placed in a brine of salt and water and left to sit in an airtight jar at room temperature for several weeks or longer, Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic Digestive Disease Institute, tells TODAY.com.

"A chemical reaction occurs between the bacteria and the natural sugars to create lactic acid, which lets the pickles stay fresher longer," Zumpano explains.

The lacto-fermentation process gives the pickles a sour tang — they're often called "sours" or "half-sour" pickles.

You can make them at home or purchase them. They're usually sold in the refrigerated section of the store or at the deli counter, the experts note.

Fermentation allows for probiotics to form in the brine, says Largeman-Roth, but the pickles need to be kept in the refrigerator to maintain the probiotic benefits. "When you pop open a jar of fermented pickles, you should see some bubbles on the surface," says Largeman-Roth.

Regardless of where you got your fermented pickles, refrigerate the jar once you open it.

Health benefits of pickles

"Pickles are made from cucumbers which are a low-calorie, fat-free food (and also) a source of fiber, vitamins A and K, minerals, and antioxidants," says Zumpano.

Pickles are a good source of beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, Zumpano adds. Vitamin A supports healthy vision and immune function, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Vitamin K is good for the bones, says Largeman-Roth, and plays a key role in blood-clotting and wound-healing.

"Cucumbers themselves are naturally very low calorie, and the seasonings and spices added to make pickles are typically void of calories," says Zumpano.

If your goal is managing or losing weight, pickles may be a good option for a low-calorie snack, the experts note. In this context, Zumpano recommends salty pickles over sweet pickles.

The sodium in pickles "may be beneficial for those who are working out a lot, like running or doing high-intensity activity and sweating a lot," says Zumpano. Sodium is type of electrolyte, which are lost through sweating, she adds.

Some athletes also swear by drinking pickle juice to help with muscle cramps, TODAY.com previously reported.

Pickles may also be a smart snacking option for people who require a higher sodium intake, such as individuals with POTS (postural tachycardia syndrome), says Zumpano.

In any case, pickles should still be consumed in moderation.

Are pickles good for gut health?

If the pickles have been fermented, they are a good source of probiotics, which are good for gut health, the experts note.

"The probiotics in fermented pickles help support a good gut microbiome," says Zumpano. "Probiotics improve good bacteria in your gut and help create better diversity of the bacteria."

Pickles in a vinegar brine have been pasteurized, which kills the probiotic gut-healthy bacteria, says Largeman-Roth.

Health risks

When consumed in moderation, pickles are generally a safe and healthy food for most people — but they can be risky depending on a person's underlying health.

"The main issue is the sodium content, which adds up quickly. Just four spears will net you 1000 milligrams, which can easily put you over the daily recommended intake of 2,300 milligrams," says Largeman-Roth.

According to the American Heart Association, 90% of Americans consume too much sodium.

If you have heart failure, high blood pressure or kidney disease, eating too much salt can worsen these conditions, the experts note. "Those are the cases you definitely don't want to be over-consuming pickles or maybe not consuming pickles at all," says Zumpano.

Due to their high sodium content, pickles can also be risky for people with liver conditions, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, says Largeman-Roth.

The vitamin K content in pickles could also be a downside for some, as vitamin K interferes with anticoagulant medications, such as warfarin and coumadin, says Largeman-Roth.

Is it OK to eat pickles every day?

Yes, it's OK to eat pickles every day if you stick to the recommended serving size and the pickles aren't pushing you over the limit for your daily recommended sodium intake, the experts say.

"Most pickle lovers will dip into the jar more than once, which will definitely rack up the sodium. If you enjoy pickles, just keep the serving size in mind," Largeman-Roth suggests.

The experts recommend thinly slicing or chopping up pickles to make the portion go a little farther.

If you’re on a low-sodium diet, pickles should not be consumed on a regular basis, says Zumpano. People with high blood pressure, heart failure, or kidney or liver disease should only enjoy pickles as a once-in-a-while treat, says Largeman-Roth. Always talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

If you're regularly eating pickles, it's also important to balance out the sodium content with plenty of fresh, low-sodium produce, like fruits and leafy greens, says Largeman-Roth.

Moderation is key. If you notice your hands or feet are swelling or that you're extremely thirsty, your body may be telling you to eat less salt, says Zumpano.

Which pickles are healthiest?

At the store, you'll find a wide variety of pickles in different shapes, sizes and flavors. If you’re choosing between brands, Zumpano recommends comparing the labels and opting for pickles with lower sodium and sugar content.

"Look for pickles without high-fructose corn syrup, and try to avoid the ones with yellow dye added," Zumpano adds.

The healthiest pickles, according to the experts, are going to be probiotic-rich fermented varieties, such as a deli-style kosher dill.

Making pickles at home — whether fermented or pickled in vinegar — may also be the healthiest option because it allows you to control the amount of sodium, the experts note. "Pickling yourself is ideal. Then you can add other herbs and seasonings like garlic or turmeric ... to maximize the nutritional benefit," says Zumpano.

Low-sodium, fermented pickles may also be a better option for people who are watching their sodium intake, the experts add.