Why do cucumbers have calories but pickles do not?

Cucumbers and pickles may seem very similar – after all, pickles are made from cucumbers! However, there is one key difference between the two that explains why raw cucumbers contain calories while pickles contain almost none.

The Curing Process Removes Calories

The answer lies in the pickling or “curing” process. To make pickles, cucumbers are soaked in a brine solution of vinegar, salt, and spices. This process extracts water from the cucumbers, causing them to become soaked in the pickling liquid. The end result is a food that is low in calories and high in sodium.

During this curing process, the following changes happen:

  • Water is drawn out of the cucumber, causing it to become soaked in the brine solution.
  • The fibers of the cucumber breakdown and become softer.
  • Cucumbers lose their raw, crunchy texture.
  • The vinegar acts as a preservative.
  • The majority of calories are leached out into the pickling liquid.

By the end of the curing process, most of the calories have left the cucumber and it takes on the taste and texture of a pickle. This is why pickles can be considered a zero calorie or very low calorie food.

Nutritional Profile of Cucumbers vs. Pickles

Looking at the nutritional values shows the stark difference between fresh cucumbers and pickled cucumbers:

Cucumbers (3.5 oz raw)

  • Calories: 8
  • Total Carbohydrates: 2 grams
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sodium: 1 mg

Pickles (3.5 oz)

  • Calories: 0
  • Total Carbohydrates: 1 gram
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sodium: 879 mg

As you can see, fresh cucumbers contain 8 calories per 3.5 oz serving, while pickled cucumbers contain almost no calories. The sodium is much higher in pickles, but the calories are almost non-existent.

Calories Lost in Pickling Liquid

The calories from carbohydrates, fiber, and some minerals end up leaching out into the pickling liquid as the cucumbers cure. While the pickling liquid does retain most of the calories and nutrition, this liquid is generally discarded after the pickles are jarred and processed.

For example, a typical pickling liquid may contain:

  • Water
  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Spices
  • Minerals leached from cucumbers
  • Calories leached from cucumbers

However, the liquid is discarded after the cucumbers soak, absorb the flavors, and become pickles. So those calories from the raw cucumbers are lost!

Calorie Difference Due to Water Loss

In addition to leaching calories into the pickling liquid, the curing process also causes cucumbers to lose water weight. As cucumbers cure, the moisture is extracted, causing them to become dehydrated pickle slices.

For example, a typical cucumber may be made up of 90% water. But after pickling, that water weight drops to around 80%. This water loss during pickling concentrates the remaining calories and nutrients, but results in a lower overall calorie count.

High Sodium Content

While pickles lose calories during the curing process, their sodium content spikes dramatically. Processed pickles may contain up to 16 times more sodium than fresh cuke slices! Here are some sodium comparisons:

Sodium content:

  • 1 whole cucumber: 2 mg
  • 1 whole dill pickle: 569 mg
  • Pickle slices (3.5 oz): 879 mg

The high sodium levels in pickles can be concerning for some individuals, especially those with high blood pressure or kidney issues. Many health organizations recommend limiting sodium intake to 1500-2300 mg per day.

Calories Do Matter from Overconsumption

While pickles are low in calories, eating them in high quantities could result in a high sodium intake. Also, some pickle varieties do contain added sugar and calories in the pickling liquid. These added ingredients could boost the calorie count higher than expected.

The ingredients and nutrition will vary based on the commercial pickle brand or homemade recipe. So if counting calories diligently, be sure to read nutrition labels rather than assume all pickles are zero calorie.

Calories in popular pickle brands:

Pickle Brand (Serving Size) Calories
Vlasic Kosher Dill Spears (2 spears) 0
Mt. Olive Kosher Dill Chips (2 chips) 0
Claussen Deli Style Pickles (1 spear) 5
Sweet Gherkins (4 pieces) 15

As you can see, most no-sugar-added pickle spears and chips are zero or very low calorie. However, sweet pickle varieties can have 15 calories or more per serving. So be sure to account for extra calories if consuming large amounts of sweet pickles.

Nutritional Benefits Remain

While the calories disappear during pickling, some key nutrients remain:

  • Electrolytes – Pickles retain potassium and sodium, which are essential electrolytes needed for nerve and muscle function.
  • Vitamin K – Necessary for proper blood clotting. One dill pickle spear provides 17% of your Daily Value.
  • Antioxidants – Pickles retain antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids. These help combat free radical damage in the body.
  • Probiotics – Fermented pickles can provide gut-healthy probiotics that support digestion and immunity.

So while the calories deplete during the pickling process, key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, electrolytes, and probiotics remain intact. This makes pickles a very low-calorie snack option that also provides nutrients and health benefits.

The Importance of Cucumber Skin

When making or buying pickles, it’s important to choose cucumbers with the skin intact. The cucumber skin contains valuable nutrients like fiber, vitamin K, vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium. The skin also contains antioxidants like beta-carotene.

During the pickling process, important antioxidants in the cucumber skin help prevent degradation and nutrient loss. Leaving the skin on cucumbers when pickling boosts the retention of nutrients.

Additionally, the cucumber skin provides a good source of fiber. While the fiber content is minimal (less than 1 gram per cucumber), it’s an important part of the food matrix. The skin’s fiber helps to trap nutrients and slow digestion. This allows better nutrient absorption when the pickles are eventually consumed.

So for maximum nutrition, seek pickles made with the cucumber skin intact. The skin provides key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

Pickling Process Varies by Method

There are several methods of pickling cucumbers, each with different effects on nutrition:

Refrigerator Pickles

Refrigerator pickles are quick-pickled in vinegar and spices for immediate consumption. They are meant to be eaten within 1-2 months. The cucumbers retain more nutrients since they don’t undergo prolonged heat processing. However, the calorie reduction may be less compared to other methods since the brine soak time is shorter.

Shelf Stable Jarred Pickles

Commercially jarred pickles undergo heat processing for shelf stability. The additional brine soak time and heat processing results in morecalories leaching out. However, some nutrients like vitamin C and B vitamins may be degraded from the high heat. Preservatives are also added to allow prolonged storage.

Fermented Pickles

Fermented pickles are soaked in a salt brine over several weeks to naturally culture probiotics. No vinegar is added. The fermentation process results in improved gut health benefits. However, calorie and nutrient retention may vary depending on processing methods.

In the end, all pickle varieties end up with a significantly lower calorie count than fresh cucumbers. But the exact nutrition profile will depend on factors like ingredients, peel removal, heating method, and fermentation.


Pickles start out as raw cucumbers, which contain nutrients and a small amount of calories. However, through the pickling and curing process, most of the calories are leached out into the pickling liquid.

Important nutrients like vitamin K, antioxidants, and electrolytes remain intact. But the fiber, carbohydrates, and calories deplete during curing. This results in a zero or very low calorie pickled final product.

However, keep in mind that some specialty pickles have added sugar, fueling extra calories. And high sodium levels can also be a concern. Overall though, the majority of standard pickle varieties can be considered calorie-free.

So next time you’re craving a crunchy, flavorful snack without the guilt, reach for a plate of pickles! Just don’t forget to account for any added sodium or sweeteners.

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