November 27

Can Pickles Kill You? Myths About Pickles Debunked by a Food Scientist

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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Whether you prefer a zesty dill pickle or a sweet hamburger chip, pickles complement many classic American meals. But why are there so many kinds? Are they ever dangerous to eat? And most importantly, how many pickles are too many? 

Is it Safe to Eat Pickles?

jar-of-pickles

Pickles draw concern from some consumers due to their high salt and acid content. Still other people have heard home-pickled foods can be dangerous (more on this below). The short story is, pickles that have been properly prepared are perfectly safe to eat in moderation! To have peace of mind that your pickles have been prepared safely, we should first understand what exactly a pickle is.


What Kinds of Pickles are There? Are all Pickles Fermented?

canning-pickles

Pickling means to preserve a food with large quantities of acid. This technique can be applied with delicious results to any vegetable (see our recipe for pickled onions!), but in the United States, the word “pickle” usually applies to those made from Cucumis sativus, or cucumber. Fermentation with live organisms is one way to achieve pickling, but pickles can also be prepared without fermentation. Let’s look at a few types.

Fermented pickles: this type of pickle is acidified naturally by bacteria. When the cucumbers are added to a solution of salt water, the salt selects against pathogenic and spoilage organisms and creates an ideal environment for a group of bacteria known as Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB). LAB produce lots of acid and a small amount of carbon dioxide, giving these pickles a unique texture. Fermented pickles are also probiotic (as long as they are not canned or heated) because the LAB that ferment the pickles are also good for your gut! 

Refrigerated pickles: these pickles are made by gathering cucumbers in jars with spices and salt and then covering everything with vinegar to preserve them. No heat is applied, so the jars must stay refrigerated. 

Fresh-packed pickles: in this type, fresh cucumbers are placed in jars along with spices and salt, then covered with vinegar. Heat is applied to pasteurize and seal the jars. This type of pickle has the longest shelf life. 


What Types of Pickles are Safe to Eat? 

jars-of-pickles

All types of pickles are safe to eat as long as they have been properly prepared and are consumed in reasonable quantities. You should feel very safe eating pickles from the grocery store. Homemade pickles pose some minimal risk, but below we will examine the risks and how to avoid them. 


What is Botulism and Should I Worry About it?

The main risk in homemade pickles is botulism. Botulism is a deadly condition caused by a toxin released by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This organism is frequently found in soil and on vegetables that grow in soil. However, it isn’t very dangerous until it gets into an oxygen-free environment, such as a sealed jar of pickles, where it can produce its deadly toxin.

This rarely happens in pickles though, because acid inhibits the production of botulism toxin. Pickles are very acidic, so toxins should not be produced even if a few cells of the organism C. botulinum make their way into the jar. 

Production facilities take great care to wash cucumbers to remove C. botulinum from vegetable surfaces, and they also use precise tools such as pH testing to make sure that acid is at levels where no toxin production can occur. However, home producers are not usually able to take all the same safeguards, so homemade pickles are riskier.

But if you want to make pickles, don’t worry! Many university Extension websites list lab-validated pickle recipes. If you follow these tested recipes, you can be sure the acidity of your pickles will reach safe levels even if you don’t have the tools to measure it. 


Do Pickles Go Bad? 

sliced-pickles

Pickles have a long shelf life, ranging from about 2 months for refrigerated pickles to over a year for an unopened jar of fresh-packed pickles. Still, they can have manufacturer defects or go bad over time. Here are some signs to look for that indicate your pickles should be thrown away.

  • The lid of the jar is domed or “pops” like a bottle of soda when you open it. This means there is gas production inside the jar, which can be very dangerous!
  • Visible mold
  • Cloudy or discolored brine
  • An Off-smell
  • The pickles seem mushy and soft


Are Pickles High in Sodium?

A 1-cup serving of pickles contains around 50% a person’s daily required intake (RDI) of sodium. This seems high, but compared to 1 cup of boneless roasted ham, which contains 70% sodium RDI, pickles pale in comparison! 

Without a doubt, pickles are a high-salt food. Excessive salt intake has been linked to elevated blood pressure, so pickles should be consumed in moderation, especially by individuals at risk for hypertension. But there is no reason to apply special concern to pickles consumed in reasonable quantities. 


Is it Safe to Drink Pickle Juice?

jar-of-pickles

Pickle juice has even more sodium than pickles themselves. As with pickles, if you are at risk for hypertension, you should avoid large quantities of it. 

On the other hand, pickle juice is high in vinegar, which has some benefits when it is consumed alongside other foods. It sends satiety signals to the brain so that you feel full more quickly, helping some people eat less. It also reduces insulin response, smoothing out blood sugar spikes. 

Studies indicate that small amounts (about a shot a day) are probably safe, and might even be good for some people. Just keep in mind that you probably shouldn’t enjoy a full serving of pickle juice on the same day that you have a full serving of pickles. It might be hard to choose one sodium-rich treat over the other! 


Can You Eat Too Many Pickles?

jar-of-pickles

One large pickle or a handful of small pickles should be your maximum intake for a day – and you shouldn’t do that every day! Whether you are at risk for hypertension or not, if you are eating pickles every day, you’re probably getting too much salt. Limit your intake to occasional enjoyment or to a few slices rather than whole pickles. 


Conclusion

With so many types and flavors of pickles entering the market every day, it might be hard to limit yourself to just a few! Just remember that like other high-sodium foods, pickles are crave-worthy but should be enjoyed in moderation. Crunch away, but keep it to one pickle a day. 

Caitlin


References

Behera, S. S., El Sheikha, A. F., Hammami, R., & Kumar, A. (2020). Traditionally fermented pickles: How the microbial diversity associated with their nutritional and health benefits? Journal of Functional Foods, 70, 103971. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2020.103971

Fleming, H.P, & McFeeters, R.F, R. F. (1981). Advisory Statement: Shelf Life of Fresh-Pack Cucumber Pickles. Pickle Packers International, Inc. https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/60701000/Pickle%20Pubs/p147.pdf

FoodData Central. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/

Kendall, C., & Schultz, P. (2011). Making Pickles—9.304. Colorado State University Extension. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/making-pickles-9-304/

Östman, E., Granfeldt, Y., Persson, L., & Björck, I. (2005). Vinegar supplementation lowers glucose and insulin responses and increases satiety after a bread meal in healthy subjects. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 59(9), Article 9. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602197

WebMD. (2022, September 15). Are There Health Benefits to Eating Pickles? https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-pickles


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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