Meditation & Health #18-Choosing Pickled Foods Wisely
Choosing Pickled Foods Wisely
By Hao Yue & Nicole Leo
Pickles date back thousands of years. Archaeologists believe pickled foods existed in the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of 2,400 BC. One of the oldest methods of preserving foods before modern refrigeration, pickling was used to make sure certain foods were available throughout the year, or on a long journey, especially by sea.
Today, American dills, German sauerkraut, Italian giardiniera, Korean kimchi, Indian chutneys, and Chinese salted duck eggs are just a few examples of the myriad pickle varieties eaten worldwide. Tangy and flavorful, pickles are a staple in many culinary cultures.
Salt, sugar, vinegar, spices, and other seasonings are used to preserve foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, and eggs. Pickling techniques include wet pickling, dry pickling and, for meat, inserting the pickling solution into the muscles or blood vessels.
Salt and sugar are used to draw water out of moist food such as kimchi. This reduces water activity and increases osmotic pressure, inhibiting microbial survival. Salt and sugar also interfere with microbes’ enzyme activity, weakening microbial DNA structures. Decay is stalled, allowing the food to be preserved.
Pickles and Human Health
Are pickles good for health? Some pickled foods contain a wide spectrum of probiotics due to fermentation. The healthy bacteria are recognized as beneficial to our immune health, and capable of boosting the gut’s good bacteria and aiding digestion. Naturally fermented foods can contain certain beneficial nutrients such as Vitamin K2, which helps prevent heart disease, and they are effective at expelling toxins and heavy metals from the body.
However, excessive and prolonged consumption of certain pickled food poses some little-known health hazards.
Be aware of the following risks, which arise particularly when foods pickled using inferior methods become a frequent part of the diet:
Excessive salt consumption
Most pickles are made using significant amounts of salt, easily surpassing the maximum daily intake of sodium. Prolonged and excessive consumption could burden your kidneys and increase your risk of high blood pressure. High salt concentration could also damage the gastrointestinal mucosa, increasing the risks of gastrointestinal inflammation and ulcers.
Many fruits and vegetables contain trace amounts of nitrates and nitrites. When certain vegetables are pickled in warmer conditions with less than 10 percent salt content, bacteria proliferation reduces nitrate to toxic nitrite in less than eight days. Such foods could cause nitrite poisoning with excessive consumption.
Many cured-meat factories also use nitrite additives to preserve, color and flavor their meat. When digested, nitrites could potentially turn into the carcinogen nitrosamine. Nitrite intake above 0.3 to 0.5 grams typically causes poisoning, while levels above three grams may be life-threatening.
Risk of kidney stones
Certain methods of pickling destroy much of the vitamins B and C in vegetables, and pickles also contain oxalic acid and calcium. When absorbed, these form calcium oxalate in the digestive tract, which builds up into crystals in the urinary system and increases the risk of kidney stones.
Despite potential health risks, pickles are still a staple in many households. How do we mitigate these risks?
Using fresh ginger, garlic, chili, onions, and basil can help inhibit the formation of nitrites, reducing nitrite-related health risks.
Typically, after 20 days of pickling vegetables, nitrite levels drop significantly and the pickles can thus be safely consumed after a month. Vegetables pickled for months contain very low levels of nitrites. Conversely, pickling vegetables for two weeks or less before consumption could be cancer-causing due to the fact that nitrite levels remain high.
Choose naturally fermented pickled foods which contain live bacteria to keep the digestive tract healthy.
Careful selection of brands
Some commercial production facilities may present issues related to improper production controls and the use of additives, possibly leading to health challenges when consumed on a long-term basis.
There are a few food enterprises which use more sophisticated technology, select safe bacteria strains for inoculation during production, and have strict controls over the fermentation process to manage nitrite levels for safe consumption. Select your pickle products from credible and regulated naturally produced brands.
Eat in moderation
Pickles can be a good source of probiotics and enzymes. But they are meant to complement, not replace, fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and eggs.
Consuming pickles in small quantities as appetizers poses no harm to a healthy person. Indeed, naturally fermented foods are a healthful, tangy addition to the diet.
Picked foods should not be viewed as a main dish. Exercise caution when selecting brands and educate yourself about pickling methods. Enjoy pickles in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet.