Pickled vs Fermented Health Benefits

There are three different methods; pickling with heat, quick pickling (without heat) and fermentation. Since they’re different methods, pickled vs fermented yield different health benefits.

“It would be inaccurate to describe fermented vegetables as pickled, but picking covers much ground beyond fermentation.” A quote from Sandor Ellix Katz book.

Pickled. Fermented. What are the health benefits? Let’s learn.

Methods Explained

First, a look at the different methods. Remember, that even within these categories there’s a lot of variation.

Pickles are anything preserved by acidity. This used to be via fermentation, but looking at grocery store shelves today, I would suggest the standard is now by adding an acid (such as vinegar to a cucumber). Fermentation is a whole other beast that takes many forms.

  • Traditional Pickling is a preservation method that involves immersing food in an acidic solution, usually vinegar, along with salt and sometimes sugar. The brine is usually hot and the food is usually heated a second time when canning or hot water bathing to make the foods shelf stable.
    • An example are shelf stable pickles.
  • Quick pickling is a fast and simple method of preserving foods by immersing them in a flavorful brine solution for a short period. Unlike traditional pickling, this method allows you to enjoy tangy and flavorful pickled vegetables in a matter of several minutes to hours. And it sits in the fridge for up to a couple weeks.
    • An example is “pink” or quick pickled red onions.
  • Fermentation is unlike the prior two methods; instead of adding acid to the food. The pH of the food reduces (becomes more acidic) via the tiny living creatures, called microorganisms, found on the food that break down sugars and turn them into other substances, like acids or gases.
    • An example is sauerkraut you find in the cooler section of your grocery that doesn’t have acid in the ingredient list.

So, as you can imagine these three processes yield different health benefits as well.

Pickling health benefits

Either method of pickling; whether quick (and cold) or traditional (where heat is applied) provides a few health benefits:

  • Taste & texture: In our standard American diet we miss out on the sour flavor which is important for food digestion and absorption. Sour foods can help reduce our stomach acid (actually, many times a good thing)! Which among other benefits, increases the action of our digestive enzymes.
  • Probiotics/gut health: Pickled foods are usually heat treated, which kills probiotics. But, if the brine uses apple cider vinegar “with the mother”, then you get a dose of “controlled” probiotics. Also, the fiber of the food helps to feed your gut microbiome, so not all is lost!
  • Appetite Regulation: The tangy and flavorful nature of pickled foods can add variety to meals, potentially helping to regulate appetite and reduce the desire for less healthy, high-calorie snacks. Ever wonder why you crave more sugar?
  • Nutrient Retention: Ideally you use in season produce to pickle, in doing so you extend the life, and nutrients of said food. While some nutrients may be lost in heat, or acid, others can become more digestible.
  • More veggies, more variety! Simply put, pickled foods are ready to eat, and study after study proves that more color, and more fiber leads to healthier people!

Obviously the actual nutrients vary based on the foods that you choose to pickle, so get creative and expand your diet.

Fermentation health benefits

Fermentation, as previously mentioned, is a different method than pickling. The acidity (or lower pH) of the food is achieved by bugs found on the food(microorganisms) that feed on the sugars of the food and produce an acidic byproduct.

  • Taste & texture: Again, eating more sour flavors is important for digestion and absorption. Sour foods can help to reduce our stomach acid (actually, many times a good thing)! And increase the action of our digestive enzymes.
    • You may likely get more tang with a long fermented food than pickling.
  • Probiotics/gut health: Guaranteed live probiotics, since the acidity of the food was created by probiotics, that are still present, and that’s a good thing because they not only improve the taste, they keep the food safe too (by lowering the pH to an inhospitable range for “bad bacteria”).
    • BONUS! When you eat a variety of fermented foods you eat different probiotics, which helps to improve the health of your microbiome better than a supplement. This is because each food carries its own type of bugs and fiber.
  • Appetite Regulation: again, tasting sour foods can be a helpful way to curb your appetite. Try an apple cider vinegar and lemon beverage.
  • Nutrient retention and improved absorption: Fermentation is really amazing. It improves the nutrient absorption of foods, and reduces “anti-nutrients” such as oxalates. Although, categorizing all anti-nutrients as a bad thing may be a misnomer. Regardless, fermented foods seem to be easier to digest and assimilate into usable pieces for our bodies.
  • More diverse, and robust microbiome: Fermented foods on a regular basis have a greater potential to improve the gut microbiome than supplements!
    • This one is HUGE. Gut health is really in its infancy, in today’s date of January 2024. And so far researchers cannot pinpoint the exact microbiome that a healthy person should have. But consistently, research finds that the greater diversity in diet, and thus gut microbial diversity, means better health outcomes.

Pickled vs Fermented Health Benefits – which one’s better?

The one you eat. But seriously… if you like fermented foods, choose those first.

Fermented foods have probiotics. Probiotics are the bugs, that after repeated exposure, can repopulate your gut. Ultimately creating a more diverse and robust microbiome, which means a healthier you.

Most Fermented foods have probiotics, namely lactic acid bacteria. Probiotics are a relatively new scientific discovery so there’s little “specific” direction to give. But some studies state as little as 1/4 cup of probiotic rich foods daily are a good addition to your diet.

Try to work up to eating 2-4 servings daily. Eating smaller, more frequent amounts may be more easily tolerated than one big bowlful.

How to shop for fermented foods?

Fermented foods are found in the cooler section of your grocery store, often stored in glass containers.

The amount of probiotics is labeled in CFU (colony forming units), which indicates the level of probiotics expected at the time of expiration. This is noteworthy because, fermentation carries a bell shape curve for the level of probiotics. Which means there’s a peak amount, that eventually tapers over time.

If you can’t find fermented foods, look for quality pickled products. A clue is that the brine is made of apple cider vinegar. If you’re wondering how to shop for true fermented foods, check out this post about Claussen Pickles.