Pickles or pickled cucumbers are cucumbers that have been pickled in vinegar, brine or other solutions where they’re allowed to ferment for a period of time. The process results in quick pickles (cucumbers immersed in acidic acid, etc.) and fermented pickles (cucumbers soured by lacto-fermentation).
Are pickles vegan? Yes, pickles are 100% vegan-friendly. The basic ingredients include cucumbers, vinegar or brine along with a few preservatives and flavoring agents—all of which are vegan.
Is relish vegan? Yes, relish tends to be vegan. It’s usually composed of pickles, salt, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and flavorings, all of which tend to be vegan.
What we’ll do here is cover each of the most common ingredients one-by-one and their vegan status.
Why Pickles Are Considered Vegan
Salt Is Vegan
Sugar has long been known to contain bone char to help achieve a vibrant white color (not all sugar, but some). For this reason, many vegans want to know if table salt undergoes the same treatment.
Sodium chloride (table salt) is colorless as the electrons are tightly bound to the anion (sodium) and cation (chloride). Visible light lacks the energy necessary to excite the tightly bound electrons to higher energy levels.
Thus, there’s no absorption or emission of light of the specific wavelength of visible light, and therefore, no color.
Keep in mind that most vegans don’t avoid sugar treated with bone char. But, it’s nice to know that salt doesn’t contain the stuff.
Anyway, pickles are loaded with salt. In fact, foods that are canned, cured, or pickled account for more than 75% of all ingested sodium.1
High sodium intake has been a health concern for some time, and food companies have gone on to develop lower-sodium versions of many processed foods for this reason.2
Salt tends to be used in these products as they extend shelf-life. Bacteria and yeast are very sensitive to salt concentrations, so the presence of high levels of sodium help control their growth during the fermentation process.2
Salt is also added to pickles in order to draw out liquid from the cucumbers.
Unhealthy or not, at least we know the salt content of pickles is cruelty-free.
Cucumbers Are Vegan
Cucumbers come in a number of varieties and small- to medium-size cucumbers tend to be used to manufacture pickles.3
This one’s obvious, though some plant foods are considered to be non-vegan by some in the community. Unlike the fig, there is no cucumber wasp.
Typical supermarket cucumbers tend to be heavily waxed to protect the fruit.3 This is another potential issue, as confectioner’s glaze can often be used for this purpose. Confectioner’s glaze is derived from a substance secreted by the female lac bug.4
However, fruits coated with wax may not even be used for pickling purposes. And most vegans don’t scrutinize such substances too heavily. There are a number of plant-derived waxes that tend to be used for the same purposes.
So, overall, cucumbers are considered 100% vegan-friendly.
Acetic Acid Is Vegan (Quick Pickles)
Vinegar for sale in stores is produced either by a slow or fast fermentation process, the latter of which results in the accumulation of a nontoxic “slime” made of acetic acid bacteria.
Specifically, vinegar is made by fermenting ethanol alcohol with bacteria. Any ethanol-containing ingredient can be used to make vinegar, including wine, champagne, distilled grain alcohol, cider, and beer. The bacteria ferment (i.e. break down) the ethanol forming several byproducts including acetic acid.
Therefore, the stuff is 100% vegan.
The Lactic Acid In Pickles Is Vegan (Fermented Pickles)
“Pickling” is a process food manufacturers use to preserve food by acidification of food products either by adding acid or through fermentation.5
As mentioned above, vinegar is a favorite for the pickling process due to its acidity which keeps the growth of microorganisms in check.
Fermentation is another method of pickling. Microbes feed on natural sugars producing lactic acid.5
It is true that galactose (which can be non-vegan) can be used to feed microbes, but we’re not talking about bulk industrially produced lactic acid.
When food products are pickled via fermentation, the lactobacilli feed on starches and sugars naturally present in the cucumbers (or cabbage in sauerkraut, etc.).
Other Vegan Ingredients Common In Pickles
While fresh veggies have little to no additives, pickled and canned veggies are another story.
Calcium Salts and EDTA
Acids like vinegar make vegetables more resistant to softening, but throughout processing, cucumbers and other pickled vegetables do tend to lose their firmness. To compensate for this loss of turgor, calcium salts are often added.6
These salts combine with the pectic substances present in the fruits and veggies making them insoluble which firms the texture of the food.7
The calcium salt used for firmness in pickles tends to be calcium chloride, which is 100% vegan.8
Color and Prevention of Crystal Formation
Calcium disodium and the disodium salt of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) are also commonly used in processed foods like soft drinks, salad dressings, alcoholic drinks, margarine, canned vegetables, spreads, sausages, and pickles.9
Calcium disodium EDTA is a synthetic preservative used in food products to slow color loss and prevent crystal formation.
It’s produced by chemical synthesis via non-animal-derived precursors, so it’s 100% vegan.10
Sodium bicarbonate aka baking soda is used as a leavening agent and for pH control. It’s commonly used for curing pickles.11
Sodium bicarbonate is derived from sodium carbonate which is mined from the earth. Thus, it’s 100% vegan.12
Sorbic acid is a fungistatic agent and thus used as a preservative. It’s used in a variety of foods like cheeses, baked goods, dried fruit, jams, wine, and pickles.11
It’s produced via chemical synthesis with non-animal precursors, so it’s vegan-friendly.13
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
High-fructose corn syrups or HFCS is a substance that has an intense sweetness which accounts for its widespread use in food production.
It’s used in a variety of products from baby foods to sodas, jams, and even pickles—especially, the sweet bread and butter variety.14
The stuff is ubiquitous in processed foods. In fact, HFCS has replaced sucrose in soda to the point where the beverage on its own uses 90% of all HFCSs.15
Which is why sugar-sweetened beverages account for 1/3 of added sugars in the diet.16
It is 100% vegan.
Currently, HFCS is made by milling corn to extract the starch content, at which point, an “acid-enzyme” process is used to break up the carbohydrates.17
Mercuric chloride is used in the extraction process to inhibit endogenous starch-degrading enzymes.18
High-temperature enzymes are used to metabolize the starch further which converts the resulting sugars to fructose.17
Alpha-amylase is added to break longer polysaccharides into shorter oligosaccharide chains.
Glucoamylase is then added to the mix in order to convert the shorter glucose chains into free glucose.
A purified solution is then made which is treated with the enzyme xylose isomerase, which converts the sugars to a mixture of glucose (~50–52%) and fructose (42%) which is referred to as HFCS 42.
Often times, some of the HFCS 42 is then processed into HFCS 90 via liquid chromatography, at which point it’s mixed with HFCS 42 forming HFCS 55.
It is 100% vegan, as the enzymes used for the process are made by microbial fermentation.17
A number of flavorings can be used in pickles and pickle relish.
- Anise. Anise is a popular flavorant commonly used in pickles. It’s a spice with a flavor similar to fennel and licorice.19
- Dill. Common in dill pickles obviously. It’s an aromatic herb and its seeds are commonly used in dill pickles, sauerkraut, salad, and borscht (beet soup).20
- Fennel. Similar in flavor to anise-like, it goes good with foods like candies and sweet pickles (bread and butter, relish, etc.)
- Mustard (black, brown, yellow, and white). This ingredient adds pungency to food products like pickles.
- Turmeric. Often used with mustard in pickle making. It adds flavor and contributes a yellow color.21
- Coriander. Whole coriander seeds are commonly used in pickle making. Ground seeds can be added to sweet relish.19
- Cumin. This is the spice you put in deviled eggs back before you went vegan. Cumin is one of the main spices in curry powder and is often used in commercial pickle making.20
- Tarragon. This is a lesser known flavoring ingredient in the US, and is common in pickle making. Because it’s common, a lot of folks want to know if it’s vegan. Tarragon is simply an herb, so it’s 100% vegan.21
Polysorbates: The Potentially Non-Vegan Ingredient
Keep in mind that pickles, on the whole, are considered vegan. But, there are certain ingredients that some vegans try to avoid, and polysorbates is one of them.
These serve as emulsifiers and surfactants (compounds that lower the surface tension of the medium in which they’re dissolved).
There are several types, so they’re designated with specific numbers like 60, 65, and 80.
A number of foods use these compounds including baking mixes, shortening, frozen desserts, and pickles.22
Polysorbates are included in PETA’s list of animal-derived and potentially-animal derived ingredients.23
They’re somewhat controversial as they are derived from fatty acids present in animals. Not all vegans scrutinize such ingredients, but if you’re a particularly prudent vegan, then you may want to look out for this ingredient.
That’s it for pickles. Thanks for reading.
You may want to check out the following related articles:
- Is Horseradish Vegan? (List of Vegan Variations)
- Is Hummus Vegan?
- Is Soy Vegan? (Soy, Tofu, Soy Milk, Miso, Etc.)
- Is Ranch Vegan?
- Is Tapioca Really Vegan?
- Mattes RD. Discretionary salt use. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51:519, 1990.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 112). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 280-281). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Flinn, Angel. “Shellac and Food Glaze” http://gentleworld.org/shellac-food-glaze/
- Clark JP. New issues with acidified foods. Food Technology 63(2):76–80, 2009.
- Manganaris, GA, M Vasilakakis, G Diamantidis, and I Mignani. Effect of post-harvest calcium treatments on the physicochemical properties of cell wall pectin in nectarine fruit during ripening aft er harvest or cold storage. Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology 80(5): 611–617, 2005.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 287). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Calcium Chloride. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_chloride#Occurrence
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (686). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- EDTA. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethylenediaminetetraacetic_acid#Synthesis
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (688). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Sodium Carbonate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_carbonate#Production
- Sorbic Acid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorbic_acid#Production
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 439). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Coulston AM, and RK Johnson. Sugar and sugars: Myths and realities. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102(3):351–353, 2002.
- Harrington S. Th e role of sugarsweetened beverage consumption in adolescent obesity: A review of the literature. Journal of Scholarly Nursing 24(1):3–12, 2008.
- Hobbs, Larry (2009). “21. Sweeteners from Starch: Production, Properties and Uses”. In BeMiller, James N.; Whistler, Roy L. (eds.). Starch: chemistry and technology (3rd ed.). London: Academic Press/Elsevier. pp. 797–832. ISBN 978-0-12-746275-2.
- Guzman-Maldonado, Horacio (1995). “Amylolytic Enzymes and Products Derived from Starch: A Review”. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 35 (5): 376–403.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (680). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (681). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (682). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (687). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Animal-derived Ingredients Resource: Living. https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/