Let’s talk pickle juice. Places like Livestrong, Medical News Daily, and many other sites across the Internet tout drinking pickle juice — yes, that brackish water left over in the jar after you eat all the pickles — as a healthy home remedy for a variety of minor ailments. Even Dr. Oz is on board with it, which tells you two things: (1) a lot of people have probably tried it, and (2) we should probably put the pickle juice question to some scrutiny.
Depending on the website you visit, there are many claims made about the benefits of drinking pickle juice. Supposedly, pickle juice can do any or all of the following:
- Prevents dehydration
- Replaces nutrients lost when sweating
- Helps relieve cramps after a workout
- Helps prevent cramps if consumed before a workout
- Alleviates PMS cramping
- Relieves stomach cramps
- Relieves heartburn
- Kills harmful bacteria in the stomach
- Cures a hangover
- Keeps blood sugar levels in check
- Acts as a healthy source of antioxidants and other nutrients
- Alleviates restless leg syndrome
- Soothes sunburn
Many of these really boil down to three core claims about pickle juice: it rehydrates, especially after sweating; it relieves cramping of many types; and it carries a load of beneficial nutrients, including potassium and electrolytes, that help the body in some way.
Already, the critical Internet reader should have a red flag. If pickle juice is beneficial to drink, which ingredients carry the most benefit? “Pickle juice” is not one all-encompassing recipe. To be specific, it’s not even “juice”. It’s a brine, a salt solution meant to preserve food. The only key ingredients in a brine are water and salt; anything else added to a brine is done for flavor, not preservation. Some of the more common pickle additives are alum (a form of potassium), dill (an herb), and vinegar (adds to or replaces salt, also adds flavor). Specific pickle recipes can also contain garlic, onions, peppers, sugar, and whatever else the recipe calls for.
If that’s the case, should one be drinking a basic salt brine? A basic dill brine? What about a sweet brine? A zesty brine? Most of these sites aren’t that specific. Some sites will have an offhand suggestion that dill pickle brine is the “best”, though they never offer an explanation as to why. I suspect that it’s because dill is viewed favorably in herbal remedy circles. In general, though, these sites don’t seem to distinguish between the brine in a store-bought jar of pickle chips and grandma’s cellar-aged pickle spears.
Does it even have to be pickle brine? What about the brine in a jar of olives? In a jar of pickled peppers? What about the brine mixture I make for my annual Thanksgiving turkey? These are all largely the same — water, salt, flavorants. Will drinking a shot of fish brine work just as well? Or what about a swig of a tasty salad vinaigrette, which carries many of the same ingredients and also olive oil? The sites out there promoting pickle brine are silent on this question.
Here’s another one: does it have to be used pickle brine — i.e., do cucumbers have to have been floating in it for it to work its magic? A big selling point of this idea seems to be a “reduce waste” kind of DIY thriftiness. There’s no clear reason why this would have to be the case, though. Besides, if one insists on making used pickle brine a regular part of their daily regimen … who’s eating all the pickles? I imagine one’s need for pickle brine would quickly outpace the cup-or-so of leftover brine in a single jar of Vlassic dill spears. Being able to whip up a new batch of brine at home on the fly would be convenient.
One more question: why a culinary brine at all? If water, salt, and certain nutrients are the keys, why not craft a mixture that provides that nutritional load without having to soak pickles in it? [Oh, wait — they’ve done that.]
I am not arguing against the possibility that a liquid of the approximate salinity and nutritional load of pickle brine might not carry with it any benefit, though it would almost certainly be minor. But as it is currently touted across the Internet, the pickle “juice” phenomenon is just another awful online food woo trend. “10 Reasons You Should Drink Pickle Juice” makes for a nice click-baity link, but it’s little more than that. There’s nothing about the specific recipe for pickle brine of any variety that makes it stand out from a hundred similar concoctions, and nothing about any of them that makes me want to drink them daily.
At this point, if you’re a good skeptic, there’s one more question you’re probably asking: has there been any actual science done on the pickle juice question? In fact there has. I’ll go over that science next week. As a preview, though, I will say this: there’s not a whole lot of it, and it’s not that impressive.
[UPDATE: The second article can be found here.]