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Photo: A cheeseburger on a bun with container of pickle slices. Link to photo information
ARS scientists have developed a way to replace most of the salt in pickle processing with calcium chloride, solving one of the industry's major environmental problems. Click the image for more information about it.

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Calcium Makes for an Environmentally Friendly Pickle

By Kim Kaplan
July 7, 2014

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists have developed a way to help pickle producers replace most of their pickling salt with calcium chloride. This is helping turn an environmental problem into an environmental plus for the pickle industry.

The U.S. pickle industry has been facing growing environmental troubles with disposing of the salty brining solution used to turn cucumbers into pickles. Americans consume nine pounds of pickles per capita each year. Brine disposal was one of the factors that helped push the California olive pickling and processing industry out of that state and overseas in the 1980s.

But microbiologist Ilenys Pérez-Díaz, food technologist Suzanne Johanningsmeier and chemist Roger F. McFeeters (now retired) at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Food Science Research Unit in Raleigh, North Carolina, have developed a way to replace most of the sodium chloride in the brine—the pickling liquid—with calcium chloride. Used calcium chloride solution can be a desirable soil amendment rather than a pollutant disposal problem.

ARS is USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.

Using calcium chloride not only retains desirable firmness in cucumbers as they pickle, but also speeds up the microbiological work of fermentation, according to the researchers.

The technology has already been put to work commercially at the Mt. Olive Pickle Company of Mt. Olive, North Carolina, the largest independent pickle company in the United States, where 66,000 bushels of cucumbers were turned into hamburger dill chips and several flavors of pickle relishes and salad cubes in 2013, using the calcium chloride. While that represented only a small part of the company's annual production, it proved there is a workable answer to at least part of the industry's environmental problem.

The lowered salt is strictly a processing issue and has no impact on the dietary salt content of a pickle.

Now Pérez-Díaz and Johanningsmeier are modifying the calcium chloride technology as a way to preserve gherkin pickles that are imported in acid solution from India. Currently, gherkins undergo a 40-day Atlantic transit packed in vinegar, salt and sulfite; the last ingredient has come to be considered an undesirable ingredient, as some people are sensitive to it. Sulfite would not be needed with new brine formulation.

The United States is a major gherkin market, but India also supplies gherkins to many other countries, so improving the health and environmental circumstances of this product could have worldwide impact.

Read more about this research in the July 2014 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.