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How Pickle Juice Changed the World of Sports: Food Innovations From the Football Field

Pickle juice is one of football’s enigmatic contributions to science.

The Philadelphia Eagles started their 2000 season at Texas Stadium in Dallas. They opened with an onside kick, recovered the ball, and quickly threw a touchdown pass. Sure, they were a losing team, expected to lose against the Cowboys, and here they were pulling ahead. But that’s not what set the game apart. It was 109 degrees, the hottest game ever played.

Imagine being a 300-pound guy, in tights, running around, running into other big guys while wearing 30 pounds of equipment. You’re going to sweat. A dozen Cowboys did so much sweating, they dropped out of the game with heat-induced muscle cramps. All the Eagles stayed in and the team won 41-14. The Eagles’ secret weapon? They fought off cramps with pickle juice.

Pickle juice has long had a reputation for curing hangovers, easing sunburns, or reducing the blisters on Nolan Ryan’s fingertips. But the 2000 game in Dallas really set the ball in motion. Now, there are pickle juice products (sort of the Schlitz of sports drinks) and at least one researcher attempting to unravel the drink's mysterious effects.

Following the "pickle juice game" in Dallas, Kevin C. Miller, then a doctoral student at Brigham Young University, got wind of the story. For his dissertation, he looked into the role that pickle juice can play in muscle cramping. Miller, who’s now a professor at North Dakota State University and the world’s leading expert on pickle juice (perhaps its only expert), performed another experiment in 2009.

He went out to Sam’s Club and bought two big 5-gallon buckets of Vlasic dill pickles. He lugged them back to the lab and drained out all the pickles. (He gives them away to students or fellow faculty). Miller had 12 healthy volunteers pedal for 30 minutes on stationary bicycles. When the riders became measurably dehydrated, he induced muscle cramps in their toes with electrical shocks and administered one of three things: nothing, ionized water, or pickle juice. Riders drank the equivalent of about 1 milliliter for every kilogram of body weight, so a 150-pound guy got about 2 ounces. Last May, he published the study, which showed pickle juice relieved cramps 45 percent faster than drinking nothing and 37 percent faster than water alone.

Here’s the thing: There’s no way the salty, vinegary liquid laced with sodium benzoate could actually reach your big toe or your stomach in 85 seconds, so there’s something else going on.

Miller suspects that the juice (probably the vinegar) triggers a reflex that tells our brains to tell our muscles to relax, something Bob Murray, a former Gatorade researcher who runs the firm Sports Science Insights, confirmed. “Scientists have known for a long time that the mouth has a lot of receptors. When we consume something, it gives the body the first sign of what’s on the way.”

This advances the theory that the limits of the human body—from fatigue to cramping—may have less to do with our muscles and more to do with our mind. Another study found that when cyclists on stationary bikes swished a carbohydrate-laced energy drink in their mouths, they didn’t even need to swallow the mixture—and voila! merely the presence of carbs in the mouth was enough to trick their brain into thinking the body would soon have more energy. One of the authors of that study, David Jones, a professor at the University of Birmingham's School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, says something slightly different appears to be going on with pickle juice.

“When a part of our body is hurting, the natural reaction is to hold or rub that area. However, a similar amount of pain relief can generally be obtained by rubbing other parts of the body and this certainly works as a way of relieving cramps,” he told me. “So I think the pickle juice is providing a bit of a shock to the system and you could probably get the same result by providing a bit of pain elsewhere on the body.”

In other words, drinking pickle juice could be like spraying Icy Hot on your skin, except it's vinegar hitting the back of your throat—temporarily taking your mind off what's the matter with your muscles. Which could also mean that drinking carbonated water or eating wasabi might function the same way. Even if you’re not watching the Super Bowl this weekend, it's worth thinking about how sometimes the strange things we eat and drink can bring a very different kind of relief.

Halftone illustration adapted from a photo (cc) by Dom Dada

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