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Hold the Pickles: Are Some Types Carcinogenic?

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?


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Photo by hirotomo.

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1:36AM PST on Jan 19, 2015

Interesting information thank you for sharing

2:42AM PDT on Sep 3, 2014

I love pickles. If I had a ready source of Kimchi I would probably eat a lot more. I don't make my own because it takes too long. Needs more research.

Agata relax your feathers. Clara's comment was very tongue in cheek. No one is suggesting you abandon your way of life. Each to his or her own.

4:03PM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

*The commercially available ones in the US “MIGHT NOT belong in the same ‘POSSIBLY carcinogenic’ category as their fermented cousins.

Dale, I think we're pretty safe ~ but just to be sure instead of one pickle a month let's practice moderation and only eat one every two months.

3:27PM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

'Cucumbers soaked in evil?' Ouch! There is always something that is going to kill us, so eating in moderation always helps.

10:13PM PDT on Apr 23, 2014

Yes indeed. In my 20's (40 years ago) I worked in a cannery and worked a week packing pickles. The juice ate the bottom of my pants and soles of my shoes. I slso lost the skin off of my feet. oh yeah healthy stuff NOT
needless to say I stopped eating pickles and told everyone I could they were dangerous

2:57PM PDT on Aug 8, 2012

@Clara H. yeaah, you know BEST -.- actually -"grass" is more like treatment for cancer, so go eat pickles (REALLY SALTY, yummy, it's like SALT with CUCUMBER, not like cucumber with salt.) and worry about your liver (of course by taking medicines - cause it is a better way than eat healthy, right? :)) in 20 years time. I prefer eat fresh vegetables and feel well & light.

10:15AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

Oh please keep this up and the only thing safe to eat will be grass oh wait that causes cancer darn.

2:42AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

Moderation, folks. A little bit of everything here and there. Everything has its problems!

8:38AM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

Good to know! Thank you.

12:30AM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

uhmmm, I've never liked pickes, so i dont eat them, good to know that there r some which are carcinogenic.... uhmmmm, late!! I've already had cancer!! :(((

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