Pickles make great snacks, satisfying food cravings without throwing off your daily intake of calories, fats, sugars or carbohydrates. Like most fermented foods, natural pickles provide probiotic benefits. Unfortunately, most commercially sold pickle brands contain high fructose corn syrup and/or food dye.
Garnish your sandwich with cancer?
Food manufacturers dye pickles as a marketing ploy to enhance the shelf-appeal of their product, hoping consumers will choose the brightest pickles from the supermarket shelves. A few manufacturers using turmeric to create the yellowy tinge which makes green pickles appear brighter. However, as an April 2011 article in the New York Times noted, natural food dyes are “not as bright, cheap or stable as artificial colorings, which can remain vibrant for years.”
Approximately 60%-70% of all dyes used in food and textile manufacturing are what are called azo dyes, processed from industrial waste. The ingredient responsible for the yellow color in many commercial pickles is the azo dye tartrazine, made from coal-tar derivatives. Many azo dyes are known to be mutagenic, meaning they cause mutations (changes in cell DNA). The National Cancer Institute has stated that mutagenic substances are carcinogens.
What the government is doing
For most of its 74-year history, the FDA has viewed most food dyes as harmless. In March of 2011, the agency asked a panel of experts to review the evidence on the health safety of food dyes. The panel’s findings will determine whether products containing food dyes should carry warnings. Many parents are concerned about dyes because products for children often contain these artificial colors and one of the suspected effects of them is hyperactivity in children.
What we found
We researched several brands and types of pickle products to provide you with information to help you determine which products are safe. Interestingly, many of the manufacturers below do not provide ingredient lists on their websites; we had to visit retailers’ sites to find these specifics. Below is a list of several products with their ingredients.
Vlasic Hamburger Dill Chips Pickles: cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate (preservative), natural, polysorbate 80, yellow 5.
Vlasic Homestyle Sweet Pickle Relish: cucumbers, high fructose corn syrup, distilled vinegar, salt, xanthan gum and guar gum, spice, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate (preservative), dehydrated red pepper, alum, natural flavor, polysorbate 80, yellow 5, blue 1.
Mt. Olive No Sugar Added Sweet Gherkins: cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, 0.1% sodium benzoate (preservative), alum, sucralose (splenda brand), xanthan gum, natural and artificial flavors, polysorbate 80, and fd&c yellow 5.
Nalley Bread and Butter Cucumber Chips: fresh cucumbers, high fructose corn syrup, vinegar, contains 2% or less of water, salt, spices, dehydrated onions, natural flavorings, calcium chloride, turmeric (color), polysorbate 80, yellow 5.
Milwaukee’s Midget Kosher Dill Pickles: cucumber(s), water, salt, vinegar distilled, calcium chloride, garlic dehydrated, flavor(s) natural, polysorbate 80, yellow 5, potassium metabisulfite
Del-Dixi Hot Dill Pickles: cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, red pepper, alum, calcium chloride, natural flavoring, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservatives), oleoresin turmeric & yellow #5 (colors), polysorbate 80 (emulsifier).
Heinz Polish Dill Spears: fresh cucumbers, water, distilled white vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, natural flavoring, polysorbate 80, fd&c yellow 5, garlic extract, acacia gum.
What you can do
Your local health food coop may have a policy against selling foods containing dyes. Trader Joe’s line of pickles does not contain any artificial dyes, and some brands, such as Clausen’s Pickles, seem to stick with natural food coloring. You can also learn to make your own pickles — pickling is a great skill to increase your level of food self-sufficiency. An excellent source of a wide range of pickling recipes, as well as instructions on other varieties of fermented foods, is Sandor Katz’ book Wild Fermentation.
Sources for this article include: