Runners at the Palm Beaches Marathon next weekend will be greeted at the finish line with packets of pickle juice. St. Thomas Aquinas High School football players are handed pickle juice pouches when they come out of a game, to help them prepare to go back in.
But the question is: Is the pungent green liquid really a magic elixir?
Long touted as a natural, low-calorie alternative to sugary sports drinks, pickle juice received recent endorsements from athletes such as professional hockey player Blake Coleman and American tennis player Frances Tiafoe, creating a buzz with claims that it stops muscles from cramping.
Michael Kahn, a Fort Lauderdale financial adviser and marathon runner, drinks a pouch of pickle juice before he sets out on his daily run. “This is such a high concentration of sodium that it gives me what I need for the next few hours of running,” he said.
The dill-flavored liquid that most pickle lovers toss out contains sodium and potassium, and people drink it to replace electrolytes lost when sweating. The strong smell and taste of pickle juice makes gulping it hard for some people to tolerate. But the appeal is that pickle juice is thought to hydrate the body faster and keep it that way longer than plain water.
Researchers have found another health benefit, too. Pickle juice may trigger a reflex in the mouth that sends a signal to the nerves to stop muscles from cramping. This reaction is why athletes are drinking pickle juice at the onset of a cramp.
“Pickle juice is sour, pungent, bitter, and those things may trigger a reflex that signals to relax the muscle,” says Marilyn Gordon, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and associate professor at Nova Southeastern University Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine. “That is a different way of looking at the ideology of muscle cramping. Rather than hydration, they are looking at it from a nervous system perspective.”
“Compared with Gatorade or other sports drinks, there’s little that supports pickle juice as any better,” Gordon says, “but if you talk to people subjectively, they will say it helps them.”
At the same time, pickle juice — in larger quantities — could actually be unhealthy for some people. The high sodium level could be dangerous for people with high blood pressure or on sodium-restrictive diets.
Kevin Miller, a professor in Central Michigan University’s Department of Athletic Training, has been studying the health benefits of pickle juice for more than a decade. Miller has completed nine research studies and still has questions he wants to explore about the effects of pickle juice on the body.
Miller’s studies found 2 to 3 shot glasses of pickle juice will make a cramp go away faster, but it won’t necessarily replace electrolytes quickly.
“What we still don’t know is whether it is an ingredient in pickle juice such as vinegar that triggers the reflex,” he said.
While research continues, Kahn, the runner, swears by the brine. A running back coach for the St. Thomas Aquinas football team, he has given pickle juice pouches to the trainers to help players with cramping.
“Some kids would cramp and they wouldn’t be able to go back in the game,” Kahn said. “This is one of the choices to give them and it works. There are powders or pills, but this seems more natural and gets to their muscles much quicker than other things.”
In South Florida, Jay Churba’s Get Pikl’ed brand is tapping into the trend, selling kosher dill pickle juice in soft pouches — just unscrew the plastic cap and sip. Churba says the pouches also can be frozen and eaten like a popsicle.
“It is a bit of an acquired taste,” Churba admits. But because people are increasingly concerned about what goes into their bodies, Churba believes his option to sugary sports drinks is gaining fans. “Gatorade is engineered; ours is made in a pickle factory, and we sift out the pickles and sediment.”
The secret ingredient, he says, is Bronx water. The cucumber is never added.
Claims about the benefit of pickle juice go beyond athletes. The vinegary liquid contains antioxidants and vitamins C and E. In addition, the vinegar found in pickle juice can help lower blood sugar levels and relieve stomach aches. Fermented pickles that soak up the brine have health benefits, too.
Churba launched Get Pikl’ed in December 2018 after seeing the rise in health and, of course, social uses.
In bars, an increasingly favored drink is a pickleback — a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle brine. “By selling pouches, bartenders don’t have to kill a jar of pickles to get the same amount of juice,” Churba says.
The internet is full of recipes for how pickle brine can be used as a chaser with whiskey, in cocktails such as martinis, or to help alcohol-induced hangovers. Along with pouches, pickle juice now comes in cans, bottles and jugs.
And buying the whole jar is an option, too, pickles included.