The health benefits of pickles include a good supply of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which contributes to diabetes control, improved digestion, liver protection, a supply of probiotics, and the ability to heal ulcers.
What is Pickling Process?
Pickling is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Before the invention of modern refrigeration, pickling was the only way to preserve various foods for future consumption. Generally, pickling began as a method to preserve foods that are either exotic or seasonal and limited by nature and cultivation.
The process of pickling can be generally traced back to India, as it is believed to have originated about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. With hot summers and a lack of water during summers, food production decreased during the summer. Thus, there was a need to preserve excess food produced during winters and hence, the process of pickling was invented to overcome this problem.
The traditional way of preparing long-lasting pickles in the oriental style uses ingredients such as salt, oil, and dry chili powder mixed with condiments. These ingredients are added according to set proportions.
Popular Pickles around the World
In India, unripe fruits such as mangoes, Indian gooseberry, unripe tamarinds, and lemons are traditionally used. Apart from these, various vegetables such as gherkin, bitter gourd, carrot, cauliflower, ginger, garlic, onion, jackfruit, and citron are also pickled. In most cases, only one vegetable or unripe fruit is used for pickling. But occasionally, a mix of two or more vegetables or unripe fruits are also made. Generally, pickles made from vegetables and unripe fruits are prepared with utmost care so that they don’t spoil and can be preserved all year long. Non-vegetarian ones are also popular. These pickles are made from chicken, fish, prawns, and mutton.
In Asian countries such as China, pickles are very popular and have also been prepared for thousands of years. Chinese pickles include vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce, bitter melon, cucumber, carrot, and shallot. These and other vegetables are mixed with sugar and salt and put in vinegar. Apart from vegetables, eggs (particularly duck eggs) are stored by applying salt, earth, hay, and other ingredients and sealed to mature for about one month. Some pickling processes include soy sauce for fermentation instead of vinegar and in other varieties, condiments such as ginger, garlic, chili, or peppercorns are also added for a hot and characteristic flavor.
In Korea, kimchi is a common pickled product that is made with fermented spicy cabbage and it also includes a wide variety of vegetables including soybean, fish, oysters and many different ingredients. The Korean pickling process owes its origins to Chinese, but unlike the common Chinese cabbage pickles, the Korean pickling process has its own variations according to the local flavor and available ingredients. Korean pickling processes usually involve two types, one in which the ingredients along with spicy chili pastes are fermented, while the other involves milder varieties pickled in water.
In a similar manner, even the Japanese have their own version of pickles, which include ingredients such as ginger, gingko nut, carrot, eggplant, radish, plum, green apricot, and soybean paste along with parboiled vegetables.
On the other hand, instant or fresh pickles, known as chutneys, are also prepared. These instant chutneys are prepared to last only for a couple of days. There is a wide range of choice in the preparation of instant pickles. Many vegetables, herbs, and condiments are used for preparing chutneys. Chutneys are very similar to sauces and ketchup.
In the USA, New Zealand, Switzerland and many European countries, pickles are generally made from salted cucumbers, gherkins, and various vegetables which are soaked in vinegar. Apart from cucumbers and gherkins, fruits such as peaches, pears, and apples are also pickled. These pickles generally have sweet, sour, and salty flavor, while Indian pickles are generally pungent in taste.
Cucumber pickles can be generally divided into fermented or crock, fresh pack or quick process, and refrigerator and freezer pickles.
Each of these pickles is made in different ways. For example, in fermented or crock pickles, either vinegar is added or the vegetables are preserved in salt brine for several weeks. Salt-resistant bacteria present in the vegetables help in converting the sugars into lactic acid, or the acetic acid present in the vinegar accelerates the process of fermentation. This is the reason why most cucumber pickles have sour and salty tastes.
Fresh pack or quick pickles, on the other hand, are also very popular, as they are very easy to prepare and are ready to eat. They are not fermented, but heated vinegar and salt solutions are poured onto the vegetables. Fruit pickles and relishes are also prepared in this manner.
Refrigerated and frozen pickles are prepared using the fermentation process. However, instead of storing them at room temperature, they are stored in refrigerators and freezers. In these frozen pickles, the vegetable slices remain crisp. (Ingham, 2002).
According to the NSDA, sour cucumber pickles contain moisture, energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and sugars. The minerals found in this pickle include iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium. This pickle also contains vitamins that include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, folate, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin C, and vitamin K.
Health Benefits of Pickles
There are so many pickles with abundant nutrients available that can help our body in various ways. Let’s look at the benefits in detail.
Pickles can be a good source of antioxidants, especially Decalepis hamiltonii or Swallow root pickle. As the vegetables or unripe fruits are stored fresh without cooking, the antioxidants present in those vegetables or unripe fruits are preserved as is. Antioxidants are those micronutrients that help in protecting our body against the attacks of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable chemicals that are produced by cellular metabolism. These unstable chemicals react with our cells and damage our DNA to become unstable and in the process, create more free radicals. We can protect ourselves from these radical attacks by consuming food with high antioxidants.
Probiotic bacteria are those friendly bacteria that are present in our digestive system. These bacteria actually help us in the digestion of food. Sometimes, due to the use of antibiotics, along with invading bacteria, these friendly bacteria are also killed. The fall in their numbers can cause digestive problems that can be solved by eating pickles made without the use of vinegar. Naturally, fermented salt pickles encourage the growth of these friendly bacteria, which will replenish their numbers in our digestive system and restore our health.
Supply Essential Minerals & Vitamins
Fresh pickles, dips or chutneys are made from leafy vegetables or herbs such as coriander, curry leaves, spinach, parsley, and amaranth. These fresh pickles are interesting and appetizing ways of making children eat their share of leafy vegetables and herbs, which are otherwise boring for them. Eating freshly made pickles not only tastes good, but also supply essential vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, folate, and minerals like iron, calcium, and potassium. Vitamins and minerals are vital micronutrients which protect us from diseases, help us build immunity, strengthen bones, enhances vision, cure anemia, and various other problems.
Studies have shown that consuming vinegar-based pickles improves hemoglobin levels in diabetic patients, which in turn helps in controlling diabetes. The acetic acid present in vinegar has been noted to be responsible for this phenomenon. However, care must be taken to avoid the consumption of salted pickles as excess salt increases blood pressure.
In India, Indian gooseberry or amla (Phyllanthus emblica) is one of the favorite fruits that are pickled. This fruit is believed to possess several health benefits according to Ayurveda treatments and moreover, since amla is a seasonal fruit, unripe amla pickles are prepared and preserved. It is a customary practice in some Indian families to have amla pickle as the first course or an appetizer as it is believed that amla pickle improves digestion.
Apart from benefits such as improved digestion, amla or gooseberry pickle also has hepatoprotective properties. Studies have shown that when amla extracts were administered to lab animals with chemical-induced hepatotoxicity or liver damage, the damage was reduced significantly.
Ulcers are internal wounds caused due to a failure of mucous membranes and acid interaction on tissues. Particularly, gastric ulcers are caused by a weakening of mucous membrane and hyperacidity. Regular consumption of amla or Indian gooseberry pickle also helps in reducing ulcers, if any.
Word of Caution: Almost all pickles contain a high amount of salt in them. It not only adds to the taste, but it also helps in preserving the pickle and acts as an anti-microbial, keeping away unwanted bacteria, yeast, and fungi. However, excess salt consumption through pickles can cause problems of its own.
Hypertension is one of the major risks of eating excess salt. It is known to be one of the major reasons causing strokes and heart attacks, especially in older people. Also, hypertension increases with increased age.
Apart from the risk of hypertension, Indian pickles may contain high quantities of oil, which increases the risk of fat and cholesterol development in our body. Hence, the regular intake of these delicious foods must be reduced and must be limited to only occasional consumption.