The fashion for pickling is showing no sign of abating. Deep-fried pickles, pickle popcorn, pickle juice cocktails – it seems there's no area of food and drink that isn't vulnerable to a drenching in vinegar.
Aside from their acerbic, sour and salty flavour, pickles are increasingly being extolled for their health benefits. They've been linked to helping insulin resistance and inflammation; sauerkraut may have anti-cancer benefits; and certain types of pickle have been tentatively associated with weight loss.
One lesser-known benefit, however, relates to muscle cramps. Eagle-eyed viewers of the London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea last weekend might have noticed the former's diminutive midfielder, Lucas Torreira, swishing a pale liquid from a white bottle, before spitting it out. Reportedly, it was pickle juice.
The Uruguayan went down with cramp during the second half of an intensely fought match; collectively, Arsenal had run more kilometres than in any game since the 2013-14 season. Teammate Sokratis Papastathopoulos helped stretch out the cramp, but the bottle, labelled 'pickle juice', may just have done the trick. Torreira went on to help secure Arsenal's 2-0 victory.
Pickle juice is said to contain several properties beneficial to sportspeople. Vinegar, in which many pickles are brined, is thought to help alleviate pain, while the high sodium content recovers electrolytes. But should you stock up on pickles and distill its juices into your gym bottle?
Probably not, says Richard Brennan, managing director ofSport Science Consultants. Pickle juice, according to Brennan, is beneficial for certain cramps but, unless you're an elite-level athlete, you're unlikely to require it.
"If you're a professional footballer, you've been exercising for 90 minutes, exercising massively and losing a lot of sweat, doing multiple repeated sprints, hundreds of accelerations and decelerations – you've lost a lot of fluid," Brennan explains. "Having a pickle shot, preferably prophylactically, would probably help."
Brennan describes two main types of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC): systemic, and cramp caused by local muscle fatigue. Systemic cramps, which can affect the whole body, occur when you've lost electrolytes like calcium, sodium or magnesium through profuse sweating.
"The mineral content of pickle is quite high," explains Brennan. "People are getting a high level of dissolved salt, in a liquid form, which is taken in by the body more quickly." In fact, it's not too dissimilar from a swig of Lucozade or Gatorade, "where you have potassium, sodium and glucose that drives the minerals and sugars into the cells very quickly. It's the same idea."
Josh Mansour of Australian rugby league side Penrith Panthers drinking a shot of pickle juice CREDIT:MARK KOLBE/GETTY IMAGES
However, as shown in the picture at the top of this article, Torreira spat out the juice, prompting the question, why take it in the first place, when it probably tastes foul? (Or, perhaps that's why he was so quick to dispel it.)
Brennan points to an area of sport science called 'mouth rinsing'. Basically, it's tricking your body into thinking it's absorbing carbs. "Your body can only take in about 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour. Anything more is going to give you gastrointestinal distress. So you rinse your mouth with a carbohydrate solution.
"One of the sugars in the pickle juice could be fructose. Swishing that around in your mouth stimulates certain areas in the brain, which makes the body think carbs are coming in, allowing it to work harder. But it doesn't actually come into the gut." It's a method long used by cyclists (and infamously not very well implemented by Paula Radcliffe).
But for the average gym-goer, squeezing in 45 minutes of exercise where possible, you're unlikely to sweat to such significant levels that you could need pickle juice. Any localised cramp is more commonly resulting from a muscle weakness. So rather than opting for pickle juice, it's best to stretch and rub the area, which will encourage blood flow, bringing nutrients, glucose and oxygen to the affected area. If it doesn't die down, rest. And always warm up properly before working out to prevent it happening.
"A cramp is a warning light on your dashboard saying this area is weak, and you need to train it gradually," says Brennan.