Ask Scientists

Question: What’s up with all those additives they put in pickles? Isn’t it just water, salt, spices and vinegar? I thought these pickles were all natural!

If you’re like me, you like pickles. Maybe not on everything, but on some things. And pickles are pretty popular here in the good ol’ USA. One study suggested that approximately 73.87 million Americans eat a whole jar of pickles per month, and 4.67 million Americans have eaten 6 or more!

That’s a lot of pickles. I won’t do the math, but it’s essentially a gazillion cucumbers a month. At least I’m pretty sure that’s a real number.

It’s a lot of pickles and, yet, making them is a pretty simple process. You get cucumbers, you add them to a mixture of salt, seasonings and water, and you let osmosis do the work for you. Water comes out, salt and seasonings go in.

Some picklers like to let their cucumbers pickle at room temperature, where microbes assist in the process by partially breaking down the cucumbers, making acid and other flavors along the way. Fermentation, while gross sounding at first, is pretty common for a lot of things. Hot sauces, soy sauce, bread, beer, it’s all the same basic concept, just using a different beginning product. Nothing gross about it.

Others pickle in the refrigerator or add vinegars and heat up the pickle jars to preserve their new pickles, preventing the fermentation.

Whichever route you like better is a matter of preference. Though if we’re being honest … a little funk never hurt nobody. Except for botulism, but that’s not a thing right? Oh, it is? Okay, maybe I’ll do some more research before letting pickles rot on my kitchen counters then!

Given the primer, if you’re not interested in stepping into the world of personal pickling (alliteration 100% intentional) but still want that salty, crunchy, and tangy fix, then you’ve probably snagged a jar or two from the supermarket. And if you have, you’ve probably noticed that the ingredients aren’t always so simple.

I had to double check the ingredients list myself just to make sure. Sure enough, there are some weird ones. Calcium chloride? Acacia gum? Beta-carotene? What in the world are those doing in my pickles?

Obviously, cucumbers, water, vinegar and salt are all fair game. If those aren’t in the jar, I’m not really sure you can call them pickles. But what’s up with calcium chloride? Will that kill me? Nah.

In a previous column, I talked about ion chemistry and how the species, and their states, matter. Calcium chloride is just ionic calcium and ionic chloride, both harmless in the amounts normally used. Now, chlorine gas and elemental calcium? Different story. But their ionic versions are basically everywhere, and we eat them all the time.

So what’s the point of this additive? Well, calcium chloride, as it turns out, is a firming agent. And it makes sense that you’d need one for pickles. Have you ever added salt to cabbage, or added sugar to berries? Water gets drawn out, and they get all wilty and wet. If microbes are fermenting the plants, they get even soggier.

The same would happen with pickles, and I can only imagine that wouldn’t be very satisfying. But with the addition of a little calcium chloride, that doesn’t happen. The leftover calcium can then be washed out afterwards, affecting the firmness minimally.

What about acacia gum? Putting gum in pickles sounds ridiculous. Am I the bottom of an elementary school desk with all of this gum being here? Does anyone understand this reference?

No to all of it. Acacia gum is a stabilizer and is usually used in syrups and such. But for a salty solution, like one that’s used for pickles, which needs to go from room temperature to a refrigerator, you don’t want anything to precipitate out of solution.

Imagine if your pickles started growing crystals in your fridge. That would be super weird and not exactly visually appealing. Acacia gum solves this problem by stabilizing the brine.

Beta-carotene is perhaps the strangest one, as not all pickle manufacturers opt to add this. Beta-carotene is a pigment you can find in carrots, and that’s what it’s in pickles for, to give them a more appealing color.

If you’ve ever pickled yourself, you’ll notice that they’re usually not super green or yellow but retain a lot of their original color. If anything, their color is a little more dampened.

As much as we like to think otherwise, we are visual eaters. We don’t like our food to look a certain way, even if it tastes the same. Produce, if it’s weird looking, doesn’t sell as well, and pickles are no exception. One study even tried to find out why people care so much about how their produce looks, and it turns out it might be due to a perceived sense of self-worth.

So rather than destroy their consumer’s super fragile self-esteem (but really just to keep sales going), color is added. And a good way to do that without hurting people is by using a natural pigment. Beta-carotene works well in that way.

It can be easy to be scared by food additives with spooky names. A lot of additives, such as trans fats, have proven to be bad for us, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned. But not all food additives are bad either, and a lot of them are fine for consumption.

The United States Food and Drug administration keeps a running list of food additives and their classification. If any of the additives were to be deemed unsafe, that would be a good place to check.

This is, of course, a lot of work. So if additives of any kind being in your food make you uncomfortable, the best thing you can do is make your own food with as minimally processed ingredients as possible.

If you’re not up for that, just know that the vast majority of additives you see on the list are safe.

Now, are they necessarily good for you? Well, that’s a different discussion. Maybe another column. For now, I’ll keep snackin’. On pickles. From a grocery store. Yum yum.

Have a question for Ask Scientists or want to join our organization? Email our head editor at: ssatinov@vols.utk.edu

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

UT Sponsored Content