What Science Says About Pickle Juice
December 22, 2014
Previously on the Skeptoid blog, I took a look at the pickle juice hypothesis -- the idea that pickle juice (really pickle brine) somehow carries with it a number of healthful benefits -- through the lens of basic skeptical questioning. To wit: does this idea even make a whit of sense? It didn't seem to; or, at least, it seemed to be woefully under-defined in terms of what the benefits actually were and why pickle juice might confer such benefits.
I had promised to go over the research evidence for pickle juice "next week," which was last week. In my defense last week was finals week at my college. Mea culpa.
Conventional wisdom claims that pickle juice is loaded with benefits, but science has yet to prove most of the claims. In fact, science has yet to even test a lot of them. A search of PubMed for "pickle juice" pulls up a mere thirteen hits. "Pickle brine" pulls up nine. Widening it to just "pickle" brings in over three hundred, but most of them have names like "Cell-bound exopolysaccharides of Lactobacillus brevis KB290 enhance cytotoxic activity of mouse splenocytes" (gesundheit!) and a lot of them involve probiotic organisms cultured from pickled foods. Several also show up in the search because they are written by -- and I am not making this up -- scientists named Pickle.
Kevin C. Miller, a researcher currently with Central Michigan University (my alma mater, coincidentally) is the expert on pickle juice science. He's co-authored every peer reviewed pickle juice study written in the past five years -- seven of the thirteen in the PubMed search and pretty much the only papers I could find testing some of the popular claims. His focus has been on the benefits of ingesting pickle juice after exercise. His findings have been underwhelming. One study concluded that drinking pickle juice after exercise did a poor job of replenishing electrolytes; another study determined that pickle juice "does not relieve cramps via a metabolic mechanism"; a third study suggested that the act of swallowing the pickle juice might in some way relieve an electrically-induced cramp, but that, again, there was nothing metabolic going on. In all, the seven studies found very little to suggest that pickle juice acts as anything other than a weak water, carbohydrate, and electrolyte replenishing solution.
Let's assume that Miller's findings have merit. What do they really tell us? That pickle juice works just about as well as Gatorade after a workout, but does so with more salt and less Fierce Grape. Which means that drinking pickle juice after a workout basically boils down to a taste preference.
Eventually, science may prove that there's some small value in drinking pickle juice for the relief of muscle cramps or some other minor ailments. Anything's possible, right? But all the science done to date suggests that pickle juice is really nothing to get excited over and it's very likely not going to do all those things that many unscientific and uncritical websites claim it does. It's a brine, just a brine, and there's nothing magical or unique about salt water that's had cucumbers floating in it.
[One last thing: this is Christmas week, and there is a tradition in the United States called the Christmas pickle. In honor of the week and the tradition, I have hidden a pickle in this article. Can you find it?]
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