Everyone wants to sell you a quick fix, but the reality is health is not built by quick fixes. It is built by all the small choices you make all day every day. Informed choices are your best bet. Even picking a pickle matters. The thing is, your choice of pickle can either add to or detract from your health in a meaningful way. You make countless small decisions like this daily, and they add up to define your health story.

Let us look at the ingredient lists of two different dill pickles:

You may be thinking, what’s polysorbate 80? Why yellow 5? What does calcium chloride do? What is a natural flavor? Those are fantastic questions, and I am going to answer them in a minute. But the more important question may be, how do those Bubbies pickles get sour without vinegar? The answer is fermentation.

If you are old enough, you may remember someone making pickles in a crock on a counter—no vinegar, no heat. Just cucumbers, water, salt, and some spices in a crock that magically turn into pickles. For real. The “magic” is industrious microbes getting to work. Naturally-occurring microbes on the food and in the air convert carbohydrates into acid or alcohol—turning your cucumber into a pickle.

In case that does not sound appetizing to you, let me reassure you that humans have been using microbes to ferment foods since at least 7000 BC. You are eating fermented foods all the time. Not only does fermentation make pickles, but it is also responsible for beer, vanilla, coffee, cheese, chocolate, wine, yogurt, bread, and much more. Fermentation preserves food, makes it more digestible, increases nutrient levels, and creates amazing flavors.

What we did not know, until just the past 20 years or so, is how dependent we are on microbes for our health. Active, living fermented foods are full of microbes called “probiotics.” These probiotic-rich foods help populate our gut microbiome (the microbial life in your intestinal tract). Gut health is a complex topic, but for now just know that we want to be doing everything we can to support a healthy gut microbiome.

Back to pickles. The Bubbies pickle is a pickle and a prescription. It has the very same ingredients in it that you would use to make pickles yourself. The calcium chloride is a mineral salt that helps keep the pickles crisp. I add a little when I make pickles at home.

The leading brand pickle foregoes the fermentation process and uses vinegar and heat to make the cucumber into a pickle. That is not terrible, but it robs us of the opportunity to get some much-needed probiotics. This pickle also has a bunch of unnecessary ingredients. This is not a natural pickle. It is a simulated pickle. This dill pickle has no dill or garlic?! Instead, natural flavor has been added. Natural flavor does not mean dill and garlic. It means a lab-created substance that was originally derived from a natural product—often completely unrelated to the flavor. The flavor could have 100 different ingredients, and we do not get to know what is in it. Yellow 5, derived from petroleum, is added to make the synthetic pickle more appetizing. In the European Union, foods containing yellow 5 are required to have a warning label stating that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”[1] The leading brand pickle also has polysorbate 80. Its purpose is to disperse the flavoring and coloring to make this faux-pickle more pickley. Why can’t it just be a real pickle?

Choosing a real, fermented pickle matters. It builds health, and it is a real food. Unlike some of the other fermented foods I mentioned (like coffee, beer, and chocolate), the Bubbies pickle still contains active living microbial life, which makes it the perfect probiotic prescription.

You need to know the difference between real foods and simulated foods. If this difference is news to you, do not feel bad. Most people cannot tell them apart either. No one is teaching us this stuff. Knowing the difference between the two pickles and why it matters is what I call food literacy. It is the knowledge you need to cut through all the quick fix chicanery and make smart choices—the kind that add up to health.

[1] Food Standards Agency. “Food Additives.” Food Standards Agency, UK Government. www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/food-additives.

Custom Illustration by Remy Thomas