When it first exploded in popularity in the early 2000’s, many people dismissed the paleo diet as just another health craze that would soon fade into obscurity, replaced by the next big thing. Well, nearly two decades later it’s still with us, outlasting a batch of ‘next big things’ which have come and gone in that time.
Why is the paleo approach to eating so popular? The answer is easy – because it works! The paleo approach to eating is not only effective for weight loss, it also has a heap of health benefits that make it a sustainable lifestyle choice.
Whether you’re just getting started with the paleo diet or have been following it for a while now, one of the most frequent questions you’ll find your self asking is whether a certain type of food is paleo or not. Some foods are easy to dismiss – anything with grains for example is a hard pass. Others however are a bit trickier to classify.
And so we arrive at our topic today – are pickles paleo? Whilst the foods that end up in pickle jars were certainly consumed by our palaeolithic ancestors, the act of using those jars for preservation is a much more modern development.
Join us as we take a closer look at whether pickles have a place in your paleo diet.
What Exactly is a Pickle?
Chances are that if you were asked to describe a pickle you’d be talking about small cucumbers in a jar of salt water. This isn’t surprising as this is the most common example of pickling that most people will encounter.
However, the word ‘pickle’ doesn’t itself describe any specific type of food. Instead it refers to any food that has gone through the process of pickling. The two most common methods to pickle food are in salty brine (also known as the lacto-fermentation method) and in vinegar.
Salt vs Vinegar
Pickling food in brine (salt and water solution) causes beneficial bacteria to consume the sugar present in the food, releasing lactic acid. This process helps to preserve the food stored in the jar whilst at the same time giving it a completely different flavor and texture profile to the non-pickled version. This method of preserving food dates back at least 4,000 years. In truth, nobody knows exactly when humans started storing food in salt water.
Using vinegar to pickle foods is a more modern method, becoming common in western society from the industrial revolution onwards. Vinegar prevents the natural fermentation process from occurring and as a result removes many of the nutritional benefits provided by lacto-fermentation.
We’d advise against buying any vegetables pickled in vinegar as it’s a much less natural method of food preservation. Throughout the rest of this article, unless otherwise stated, when we talk about ‘pickles’ we’re referring to food that has been pickled in brine.
Homemade vs Store Bought Pickles
If you want to make sure that you’re buying quality pickled food from the store, have a look at the label for an indicator that it has been naturally fermented. You should also be able to see bubbles on the surface of the brine. This is an indicator that there is live bacteria inside.
Buying from the store is all well and good, but we think one of the best things about pickles is how easy it is to make them yourself. Home-prepared pickles also have an added advantage over store-bought as you know exactly what is going into the jar when you make them.
Health Benefits of Pickles
Whilst the full nutritional profile of pickles depends on the specific food in question, there is no doubt that pickles are packed with health benefits that make them a great addition to your diet.
Boosts Digestion. The bacteria that thrives in the process of fermentation is also great for your gut health. Pickles help to increase the amount of good bacteria in our gut whilst at the same time reducing the amount of ‘bad’ bacteria.
High vitamin concentration. The salt used in the pickling process draws the water out of the vegetables, making a serving of pickle much more highly concentrated in vitamins than its non-pickled counterparts.
Intact nutritional profile. Unlike other ‘processed’ foods, pickles retain all of the nutritional benefits of the original vegetable. This means that aside from the helping of vitamins mentioned above, pickles are also a great source of antioxidants and other micronutrients such as iron, manganese, beta-carotene and others – depending on the pickled vegetable.
A Word on Salt
Whilst it’s good to include pickles in your rotation of paleo diet foods, you do need to be careful of your salt intake. One of the main health concerns of eating too much pickled food is the high sodium levels.
Too much salt in your diet is closely linked to high blood pressure. High blood pressure is itself linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes , diabetes and kidney disease.
As with all good things we recommend you exercise moderation with pickles and enjoy them as a small part of a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet.
Are Pickles Paleo?
So we’ve established that pickles can be a component of a healthy diet. But, are pickles Paleo? Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for and against…
Why Some Paleo Dieters Reject Them
One reason that some extreme paleo adherents of reject pickles is the fact that our ancestors didn’t use fermentation, therefore they don’t have a place as a paleo diet food.
As we’ve described, however, the process of fermenting is triggered by the natural process of bacteria feeding on sugar. Furthermore, water and salt are two of the most common natural ingredients in the world – in some form or another they’re in practically everything!
Another argument made by some paleo dieters is that pickling is a form of processing food, therefore pickles should be avoided. Again, whilst strictly true the ‘processing’ here is so minimal that it shouldn’t dissuade all but the most die-hard purists.
Why We Pick Paleo Pickles
We’re not just saying it so we can use alliteration in our titles (though honestly, that is a good one!), we firmly believe that pickles have a place as a food for paleo diet followers.
The process of fermentation might not have been available to our cave-dwelling ancestors, but this method of storing food isn’t modern at all. As we’ve described previously we know that people have been pickling vegetables for several thousand years. The only technology (if you can call it that) involved in making pickles is a jar – and we know that humans have been making storage vessels of different kinds for many thousands of years.
The health benefits of pickles are more than enough for us to disregard the dubious calls for purity. To top it off, pickles are also a delicious addition to any meal!