The Right Chemistry: The mysterious impact of ‘pickle juice’

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Brine in which cucumbers are fermented helped relieve athletes’ cramps, but this could not be explained by the restoration of electrolytes.

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They still refer to it as “the pickle juice game.” It was opening day of the NFL season in 2000 and the Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas. The day was broiling hot with temperatures on the field hitting 43 degrees C. It wasn’t long into the game that some Cowboys players were limping off the field with cramps, but the Eagles were unaffected. In the hottest game in NFL history, Philadelphia triumphed 41-14. Much of the credit went to an Eagles trainer who had suggested the players drink the brine from jars of pickles.

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That intrigued Kevin Miller, then an undergraduate student majoring in exercise science at the University of Wisconsin. Studying “pickle juice” was destined to become his passion. It began at Brigham Young University, where the topic for his PhD thesis was, “Plasma and EMG responses during an electrically induced muscle cramp and following pickle juice and water ingestion.” Miller, now at Central Michigan University, would go on to become the world’s leading expert on pickle juice and carried out the most frequently cited study on the subject, one that actually indicated the Eagles may have been on to something. Perhaps not Nobel Prize material, but the results were welcomed by athletes for whom cramping is a curse. After all, it is not unusual to see a basketball player writhing on the floor with a cramp.

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Pickle juice is really a misnomer. Unlike oranges or apples, pickles are not squeezed to produce juice. The reference is to the brine in which cucumbers are fermented for conversion into pickles. That conversion is quite simple and has been known for thousands of years. Just submerge the cukes in salty water and wait 3-4 weeks. Voila! Garlic, dill and mustard seed can be added for flavour, but these are not necessary for pickling, which is probably the oldest method of food preservation.

Necessary, however, are salt and bacteria that naturally inhabit the surface of the cucumber, having been picked up from the air or the soil. The most important are from the family of lactobacilli because these produce lactic acid, the key for preservation. There are many other types of bacteria that colonize the cucumber, some of which can lead to spoilage or even illness. Fortunately, these are inhibited by salt to a far greater extent than the lactobacilli. When it comes to the battle of the microbes, as long as the solution in which the cucumbers are immersed is sufficiently salty, the lactobacilli win. They multiply quickly and digest the carbohydrates in the cucumber to produce lactic acid, which increases the acidity of the solution, producing the desired tart flavour. More importantly, the increased acidity prevents other less desirable bacteria from multiplying.

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Lactobacilli need an oxygen-free, or “anaerobic” environment to grow, while other bacteria can multiply in the presence of oxygen. That is why it is important to exclude air while the fermentation is going on. Any exposed pickle or brine becomes a breeding ground for microbes that will spoil the whole batch.

So, what’s in pickle juice? Lots of salt. Also some lactic acid that leaches out from the fermented cucumbers, along with small amounts of potassium, magnesium and calcium. Then of course there are also the lactic acid bacteria, which are in the realm of “probiotics,” defined as microbes that have beneficial effects when introduced into the body. But can this concoction really help resolve a cramp?

The common belief used to be that cramps are caused by a combination of dehydration and loss of sodium and potassium. This has stimulated athletes to guzzle sports drinks like Gatorade, but a clever experiment by Miller showed that the cause of cramps is more complicated. He devised a way to trigger cramps in the big toe through electrical stimulation and had volunteers pedal on a semi-recumbent exercise bike to a point of dehydration. But it took no less electrical stimulation to produce a cramp than before they had exercised. Dehydration didn’t prime them for a cramp.

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When cramps were induced in volunteers after they had become exhausted from bicycling, they lasted about two and a half minutes. They were then zapped again, and as soon as the cramps began, the men drank 75 mL either of deionized water or pickle juice from a jar of Vlasic brand pickles. This time cramps lasted only about 85 seconds in the subjects who drank the pickle juice leading to the widely reported result that “pickle juice relieves a cramp 45 per cent faster than drinking no fluids, and 37 per cent faster than water.”

The relief was so rapid that the juice had hardly enough time to reach the stomach. Consequently, the effect could not be explained by the restoration of electrolytes that are found in pickle juice, with sodium being prevalent. Rather, the researchers suggested that the pickle juice may trigger a reflex in the mouth that sends a signal to inhibit the firing of motor neurons in the cramping muscle. As far as pickle juice actually improving performance, as some tennis players claim, nope, says Miller, based on an experiment in which young men drank either deionized water or pickle juice before running to a point of exhaustion. There was no difference between water and the “juice.”

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Some consumers have raised questions about the safety of drinking pickle juice, or even just eating pickles, given that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) ranks pickled vegetables as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Some fungi in these vegetables can turn naturally occurring nitrates into nitrites that then form carcinogenic nitrosamines. But this refers to Asian diets in which pickled vegetables may be eaten every day as a staple food. That crunchy dill eaten along with an occasional smoked meat sandwich isn’t going to cause a problem. Be mindful, though, of the sodium content. If you have a protracted high-sodium diet, that, one might say, can land you in a pickle.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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