Go easy on the pickle
The traditional Indian meal isn’t really complete without the achaar. But make sure you opt for the healthiest variations possible—and stick to home-made ones if you can. Don’t let only the flavour dictate your choice.
“The biggest health problem with pickles tends to be their high oil and salt content, which can in the long run be detrimental to our heart and blood pressure both. Home-made pickles are better to consume because one can control both the quality and quantity of ingredients; avoid poor quality vegetables, oil and spices, and also keep the salt, sugar and oil content as low as desired,” says Priya Bharma, chief nutritionist at the Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute in Delhi.
Pickles help in the digestive process, says Vishakha Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based doctor with a fellowship in nutrition and a Mint columnist. “Pickles aid in the secretion of digestive enzymes and help to kick off the digestive process in the mouth itself.” According to Shivdasani, more than oil or sodium, it’s sugar that should be avoided.
“It is a common misconception that using salt is a Western method of pickling, while using oil is an Indian method. Salt is needed by both forms of pickling because it actually eats up the natural sugars of the vegetables, creating lactic acid bacteria, which aids the preservation, fermentation and removal of potential bad bacteria,” explains Mumbai-based macrobiotic nutritionist Shonali Sabherwal.
Oil helps seal off the air (oxygen) and works better with Indian spices. By sealing off the oxygen supply, home-made pickles encourage good bacteria multiplication. A temperature of 20-25 degrees Celsius is ideal for fermentation, which is why pickles made at home are placed in jars which are then placed in the sun. “It is the fermentation process that preserves, making the pickle more digestible and nutritious, generating healthy gut bacteria,” says Sabherwal.
“Opt only for oil-based pickles that use cold-pressed oils. Most commercially manufactured pickles use refined oils. These pickles get rancid faster since such oils create free radical damage and aid cellular death,” she adds.
When you’re selecting a pickle, then, “it is the pickling process which should be considered because that is what determines whether it has undergone a natural fermentation process or is simply preserved,” says Manasa Rajan, a nutritionist at Cure.fit, a Bengaluru-based health and fitness enterprise.
Pramod Tripathi, a diabetologist at The Freedom Tree clinic in Mumbai, says it is better to avoid pickle if you have diabetes or hypertension, or if you are a cardiac patient. “When you club oily pickle with oily fried food (like puris and bhaturas), this makes way for increased sugar levels and high cholesterol. For a healthy person (with no medical ailment), one tablespoon (about 45 kcal) of home-made oil-based pickle per day is permissible.” Optionally, one tablespoon of brine-based pickles can be consumed in a day.
However, if you are diabetic or have hypertension, says diabetologist Pradeep Gadge of the Gadge Diabetes Centre in Mumbai, the permissible quantity of oil-based home-made pickle should drop to as little as one-fourth tablespoon once in 15 days. “Avoid pickles if you have stomach ulcers,” adds Shivdasani.
If you love pickles but are watching your weight, opt for brine-based rather than oil-based pickles as oil can add to calories, and if its quality is suspect, it can add trans fat to your diet.
“If you suffer from blood pressure, go easy on brine pickles (or have them after rinsing) as one serving can deliver 500-1,100mg of sodium—that’s almost half of the recommended sodium allowance for an entire day. Besides, the high salt content may also cause bloating and water retention” says Bharma.
If you’re looking to make pickles at home, Sabherwal suggests ditching refined salt stripped of minerals in favour of rock salt or sea salt, cheap local vinegar for apple cider vinegar or a home-made vinegar, and using jaggery instead of refined white sugar.
And when you reach out next for that pickle jar in a shop, read the label carefully—avoid purchasing brands that list class II preservatives, firming agents, artificial flavours and synthetic colours.