On November 1st, 2017 we learned about

The origins of the artificial flavors that make your antibiotics taste like bubblegum

In 1972, Beecham Laboratories made a significant advancement in medicine that has improved the lives of millions of children around the world. They launched Amoxil, an antibiotic related to penicillin that today is often sold under its generic name, amoxicillin. The exact bacteria-busting power of Amoxil were surely great, but the real innovation may have been the sweet, vaguely-bubblegum flavor that was mixed in with the otherwise bitter liquid. By adding what tasted like a spoonful of sugar to every dose, getting kids to follow through on their course of antibiotics became easier than ever.

Battling bitterness with sweet, syrupy relief

While the weirdly chalky flavoring of amoxicillin may stand out in many people’s experience as the best part of a childhood ear infection, but it certainly was not the first time flavor was added to medicine. In the Middle Ages, when illness was believed to be an imbalance of the “four humors,” treatments were based on flavor. So if you felt sad or sour, the recommendation would be that you should avoid acidic foods and eat something sweet instead. (“I feel sad!” shouts the eight-year-old). While sugar has been linked to pain-relief, a lot of these treatments were probably only effective as placebos, and even then it seems hard to feel optimistic over the prospect of being prescribed something to restore your phlegm.

Herbal remedies offered more efficacy, but like penicillin, often taste very bitter. This bitterness was seen as a sign of the herbs potency, but it didn’t make them any more attractive to patients. Rather than have people munch plants directly, herbs were dissolved in alcohol and mixed with sugary syrups. It was nothing as exciting as the wild cherry or banana flavors you might find today, but the sweetness made medications much more palatable.

A fruit salad’s worth of synthetic flavors

By the 1800s, chemists were starting to isolate specific compounds that matched the flavors and smells of various foods. These compounds were usually¬†esters¬†that turned up in various contexts, like the cherry flavors that were found in byproducts of everything from alcohol distillation to coal processing. Methyl anthranilate, which in Germany was associated with orange blossoms, reminded people of Concord grapes (Vitis labrusca) in the United States. It’s now the basis for all the grape flavored candy and cough syrups on the market, even if it doesn’t taste like the Vitis vinifera grapes we snack on or make into wine. Banana flavors have a similar disconnect these days, as the isoamyl acetate that’s added to food and medicine comes from the Gros Michel banana, a cultivar that hasn’t been available since the 1950s. The flavor was included in candies in the United States before the average consumer could buy any bananas, but now it clashes with our expectations of Cavendish banana flavor.

All these flavors promised tastier candies and medicines, which became a serious problem by the 1960s. So called “candy aspirin” was apparently sweet enough to be compared to SweeTarts, a fact that was not overlooked by kids who started seeking treatment for every ailment they could think of. Many children were so drawn in by this flavor that they started eating aspirin like literal candy, and increasing aspirin poisonings by 500 percent nationwide. In response, the flavor was toned down and child safety caps were introduced to keep smaller hands away from medications.

Flavored medicines beyond bubblegum

Anyone with a young child knows that these flavored medications haven’t vanished entirely though. Dimetapp is still flavored like Concord grapes, and amoxicillin is still the strawberry-banana-cherry-cinnamon mash-up that we recognize as bubble gum. Chemistry hasn’t stopped innovating though, opening up a larger array of options than ever before, including mango, watermelon, and chocolate. If that weren’t enough, your dog can get its medicine flavored as beef, tuna, chicken pot pie, bacon, salmon, and yes, bubble gum. No reason for dogs to miss out on one of medicine’s greatest achievements, right?

Source: A Search for the Flavor of a Beloved Childhood Medicine by Julie Beck, The Atlantic

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