Are Pickles Fermented? Pickled Vs. Fermented Foods

Since I discovered the various health benefits of fermented foods, I have become a complete fan of these sour, delicious treats. I have learned to make my own fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, and more. But when it comes to grabbing a fermented snack from the grocery store, choosing the right product can be confusing. So what are fermented foods, exactly? And are pickles fermented, or are pickled foods different from fermented foods? These types of questions shouldn’t be ignored; there is a crucial difference between pickled and fermented foods that impacts their nutritive value.

Pickling and Fermenting – Not to Be Confused

Some pickles can be fermented, but others are not. Pickling is a more general term, referring to various ways of preserving foods in an acidic medium. In many cases, that acidic medium is vinegar. When most people refer to pickles, they mean cucumbers that have been prepared in vinegar.

So what are fermented foods, then? Fermentation is considered a pickling method, but it is a specific one; in this case, the acidic medium is created through lactic acid fermentation. During fermentation, the starches and sugars in the food are converted into lactic acid by the bacteria lactobacilli. The lactic acid production is what gives fermented foods their unique sour smell and flavor. The fermentation process is also what makes them such nutritive super foods.

Health Benefits of Fermented Foods: It’s All about the Healthy Bacteria

During the fermentation process, probiotics, or healthy bacteria, are produced. Probiotics are now known to be effective in treating a variety of conditions, and more and more is being discovered about the link between the bacterial composition in our bodies and overall health. (Learn the difference between prebiotics and probiotics here.) Fermented foods offer a wide variety of strains of natural, healthy bacteria, even more so than most probiotic supplements do.

Probiotic-rich fermented foods have a variety of health benefits. They aid in digestion, enhance the nutrient availability of food, and ward off harmful pathogens in the digestive system like Salmonella.[1,2]

But the benefits of fermented foods reach far beyond just digestive health. Probiotics in fermented foods help to enhance immune system functioning, affect lipid metabolism, have cancer fighting effects, and more.[1,3] For a detailed discussion of the various health benefits of fermented foods, read more in 7 Reasons Why Fermented Foods Are Healthy.

 How to Choose Fermented Foods Instead of Pickled Ones

If you are looking to increase your probiotic consumption, don’t be fooled by pickled products on grocery store shelves. While pickled foods can be tasty, they just simply don’t have the same incredible health benefits as fermented foods.

In a simple sense, you can think of the difference between fermented and pickled foods in terms of whether or not they are live foods. Fermented foods are rich in live, healthy bacterial cultures, while pickled foods are not. So what are fermented foods? Examples of fermented foods include the following, which all are made from live cultures:

• Sauerkraut
• Sourdough bread
• Yogurt
• Kombucha
• Kefir
• Miso
• Cultured cheeses

When heading to the grocery store, go straight to the refrigerated section. This is where you will likely find truly fermented products, instead of just pickled ones. Read labels carefully. Many truly fermented foods will say it on the container, and they will advertise their probiotic content. Look for labels that include the words “live cultures,” “source of probiotics,” or others that hint that the product you are buying is indeed fermented.

Try out fermentation for yourself

Even better, try making your own fermented foods at home. Try out these simple and easy recipes for homemade sauerkraut and sourdough bread to get started.


[1] J Appl Microbiol. 2006 Jun;100(6):1171-85.

[2] Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2013 Feb;27(1):139-55.

[3] Biotechnol Res Int. 2014;2014:250424.

Chelsea Clarkis a writer with a passion for science, human biology, and natural health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology with an emphasis in neuroscience from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. Her research on the relationship between chronic headache pain and daily stress levels has been presented at various regional, national, and international conferences. Chelsea’s interest in natural health has been fueled by her own personal experience with chronic medical issues. Her many profound experiences with natural health practitioners and remedies have motivated Chelsea to contribute to the world of natural health as a researcher and writer for Natural Health Advisory Institute.

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