Hold the Pickles: Are Some Types Carcinogenic?
Pickles, or more precisely pickled vegetables (read on; it’s not just your average dill under scrutiny here), could possibly cause cancer, says the World Health Organization. Slate cites figures from Asian countries connecting eating pickled vegetables and rates of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (which is a cancer attacking the cells of the esophagus) in regions where people eat higher amounts of fermented vegetables, as fresh ones are not available.
While clinical studies of a possible cancer-pickled vegetable link have been “mixed,” a 2009 review of existing studies in Nature suggested eating said pickled vegetables can roughly double a person’s risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.
Further, gastric cancer rates are “unusually high” in South Korea and Japan, even though both countries’ populations eat 73 percent more vegetables, and Japanese 34 percent more, than do Americans (and we eat 70 percent more vegetables than northern Europeans). The problem lies in the type of vegetable consumed: Many of the vegetables eaten in said Asian countries are pickled:
Pickling generally means preserving a food in an acid, but that acid can come from a number of sources. In the aforementioned cancer-plagued regions of China, they place the vegetables in jars and cover them with saltwater. The solution provides an ideal environment for microbes that consume the food’s sugars. As they digest those sugars, the microbes release acid, alcohol, and other flavor-enhancing compounds — as well as, apparently, some carcinogens.
Slate points out that most major manufacturers of pickles in the US use different, faster, brewing methods to make pickles — methods which, ironically, make for a safer product:
Anyone who has brewed up their own pungent batch of fermented kimchi or kosher dills knows that the process can take weeks or months to complete. Some people, including major food conglomerates, don’t have that kind of time. Instead of waiting for the microbes to acidify the contents of the jar, most major cucumber-pickle manufacturers just cover their cukes in dilute vinegar from the beginning. The mixture is usually pasteurized, preventing any fermentation.
As far as the Explainer can tell, there’s no evidence suggesting that directly acidified, nonfermented cucumbers — the kind you probably buy at large grocery stores — cause cancer. It would be hard to conduct a clinical study, though, because Americans eat just four pounds of pickles per year [PDF]. The methodologies and questionnaires vary, but participants in Asian pickle studies generally report eating pickled vegetables several times per week.
In other words, it’s not completely a pickle about pickles in general. The commercially available ones in the US “might not belong in the same ‘possibly carcinogenic’ category as their fermented cousins.” Still, it’s not a great idea to eat a whole jar of sweet gherkins as pickles are high in sodium, which is believed to increase your risk for stomach cancer.
Of course, with the ongoing deadly E.coli scare in Germany and fresh vegetables including lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes being possible sources of contagion, it’s starting to feel like vegetables, fresh and pickled, are on trial. Fresh is best, but wash everything really well first?
Photo by hirotomo.