When The Pickle Juice Co. of Mesquite, Texas, wanted scientific proof to back up its thousands of testimonials saying that its product relieved cramping, company leaders knew where to turn.
They went directly to Central Michigan University's Kevin Miller, an athletic training faculty member in the The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions.
"We chose Kevin because he is widely recognized as the authority on muscle cramping and well-respected in the athletic trainer community, which ties into our core user base," said Filip Keuppens, vice president of global sales and marketing at The Pickle Juice Co.
Football games to experiments
Miller has been researching pickle brine since his doctoral studies at Brigham Young University in the early 2000s.
While at BYU, he noted that the school's football players were drinking pickle brine during games, and he was intrigued.
He recalled the September 2000 game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, reportedly the hottest-temperature game in NFL history. The Cowboys were suffering from multiple muscle cramps, while the Eagles were not. After the game, the Eagles attributed their win partly to their players avoiding cramps by drinking pickle brine.
Doing some background research, Miller unearthed two earlier case studies at the University of Northern Iowa, which showed that pickle brine helped its athletes get rid of leg cramps 30 seconds after drinking it.
"This is an area where I can make a difference." — Kevin Miller, athletic training faculty member
Miller then conducted his own research in which he induced a cramp in subjects' big toes and found that the average time for relief was 85 seconds after drinking pickle brine, 134 seconds with water and 152 seconds with nothing at all.
The interesting thing, he said, was that even five minutes after ingestion, there were no changes in blood chemistry.
"So we had a phenomenon that the cramp was going away faster when they drank pickle brine than water or nothing, but there was no real clinically important difference in their blood electrolytes, like sodium and potassium," he said.
In addition, the amount of time that it took for the cramp to go away was much shorter than the time it would take for that amount of liquid to move out of the stomach and into the bloodstream, which is about 20 minutes.
His subsequent research continued to show that pickle brine works in avoiding and stopping cramps, but the "how" is still a question.
"We just know that because the effect is so fast, if it is due to some nutrient being absorbed, it would have to be through the mouth, not the stomach," Miller said. "We hypothesize that it probably is a neurological reflex, and that will require further study."
Science trumps claims
As far as The Pickle Juice Co. is concerned, "We are just trying to prove that our product works better than not our product," Keuppens said.
Miller understands that.
Just having some consumers saying that a product works doesn't hold weight, he said, but if it can show in a randomized and controlled experiment that it does work, then they can use that "stamp of approval" to promote their product.
"And if the guy who did the study is well-known for his research into cramping and pickle brine, it makes it even better," Miller said. "It adds validity to their claims."
Also, if during testing Miller happens to find out which of the juice's components is the active ingredient, it would help the company in creating similar products, such as sprays or creams and the like, Keuppens said. But that is not how the study is being designed at this point.
Following a trend, making a difference
Keuppens said that the success of the product speaks to the trend of consumers looking for natural solutions to complex health problems.
"People are learning how effective natural food and beverages can be as an alternative to previously chemically or artificially produced products," he said.
"This study is not just isolated to pickle brine and muscle cramping," he said. "It represents the trend that we as a people have become more educated and are more concerned about what goes into our bodies."
For Miller, this is another step toward finding something that will stop or prevent muscle cramping, a topic that is a bit personal: He, too, was plagued with multiple muscle cramps when he played soccer.
But even more, "This is an area where I can make a difference."