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The practice of preserving vegetables by storing them in salt or vinegar and allowing them to ferment is very ancient. As early as 2030 BC, cucumbers brought from their native India helped begin a tradition of pickling in the Tigris Valley. Traditionally, pickling has been essential as a way of making vegetables available throughout the year or on a long journey, especially by sea.
The best methods of pickling – and perhaps the oldest – involve allowing lactic acid fermentation to break down the fresh vegetable and thereby create a new, and in some ways, more nutritious food. However, recent research has raised some troubling questions about the health risks of pickles and their close cousins, including kimchi and sauerkraut.
Pickling is very common around the world. In Britain, you can find pickled onions, beetroot, gherkins, red cabbage, and olives. Italians serve giardiniera, which includes onions, carrots, celery, and cauliflower. The Polish traditionally pickle plums, pumpkins, and mushrooms. In India, various fruits and vegetables are mixed with spices and vegetable oils to produce chutney. The Persians pickle turnips, peppers, cabbage, lemons, and cauliflower. The Chinese pickle many different vegetables, including radish and chili pepper. The Vietnamese pickle shallots, the Japanese kelp, and the Russians tomatoes. In East Texas, where I grew up, pickled okra, cauliflower, carrots, and peppers are eaten regularly.
Are pickles good for your health? Well, yes, in moderation… but the issue is complicated. A pickle has a completely different nutritional profile than the vegetable it was made from. On the one hand, Vitamin C and other water soluble nutrients are leached out and end up in the pickle juice, and Riboflavin is destroyed by cutting the vegetables and exposing them to light. On the other hand, certain nutrients, in particular the oil soluble nutrients, such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as the fiber, are retained. But the most interesting part is what happens through the fermentation process during which a host of new nutrients, including Vitamin B12, are created. Vegetables that are naturally fermented have the added benefit of boosting the gut’s good bacteria. However, recent research has raised some troubling questions about the health risks of pickles. Researchers noted that there was a two-fold increased risk of oesophageal cancer associated with the intake of pickled vegetables. Other studies have concluded that a high intake of pickled vegetables may increase gastric cancer risk. And a later study, in 2012, supported the previous research and suggested a potential 50 percent higher risk of gastric cancer associated with eating pickled vegetables and other pickled foods. This sounds like a big risk, but remember that in the United States, which has some of the highest rates of cancer in the world, the number of new cases of stomach cancer is 7.4 per 100,000 men and women per year. The number of deaths is 3.4 per 100,000 men and women per year. So a 50% increase would mean only a few more new cases per year for 100,000 people and one or two additional deaths. Compare that statistic with the number of people in the US who die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and auto-immune diseases — all associated with not eating sufficient vegetables — and you see that eating too many pickles should be the least of your dietary worries.
An additional problem is that the “pickles” that you buy in the supermarket are simply cucumbers sitting for months in brine or vinegar full of preservatives. Whatever good bacteria they may have once had are long dead. In order to gain the benefits of pickles, the vegetables have to be naturally fermented and contain live bacteria. When a food is allowed to ferment naturally, the process actually adds to the nutritional content, since the bacteria causing the fermentation produce B vitamins, and the bacteria help keep the digestive tract healthy.
To get the greatest health benefits, look for fresh pickled vegetables, like sauerkraut, in the refrigerated sections of supermarkets and natural food stores. Some delicatessens also sell them. For healthy kimchi, go to a Korean grocery store. But if you really want to be sure you’re eating something healthy, try making your own pickled vegetables using traditional methods, such as what Traci Mitchell explains in the video. It’s easy and fun.
For a discussion of whether to ferment using salt, whey, or a starter culture, see Cultures for Health.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms.