By John Dillon
When Duane Stanford’s dad emerged from rotator-cuff surgery, hospital nurses handed him a small can of Canada Dry ginger ale in case the anesthesia had made him queasy. As the editor of Beverage Digest, Stanford understood the impulse to fight nausea with ginger ale perhaps better than most.
“People in general believe ginger ale has a healthy halo,” Stanford said. “The psychosomatic effects are something not to discount. If they think ginger will do something, it might.”
The hospital did what caregivers have done for thousands of years: Reach for ginger root as an anti-emetic. When ginger ale was invented in the mid-19th century, it quickly became a bedside staple among people suffering from various causes of nausea and vomiting.
But does it work? The limited medical literature contains no slam dunk in ginger ale’s favor for perhaps its most common therapeutic use: nausea caused by gastrointestinal bugs, or gastroenteritis. Clinical trials have shown, though, that ginger is at least marginally effective against nausea caused by chemotherapy, anesthesia, motion sickness, and pregnancy.
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Since research has found few negative side effects of the spice aside from a possible risk of heartburn, it’s safe to assume that ginger ale will, at least, do no harm. In part because ginger ale is safe, “it would be something I’d grab,” said Suzanna Zick, a professor at the University of Michigan department of family medicine.
Ginger has been cultivated as a spice since ancient times and almost from the start people used it to aid digestion and relieve nausea, as well as using it to treat a host of other ailments. In the Middle Ages, the spice was even promoted as a prophylactic for the bubonic plague. In the late 1800s, importers of Jamaican ginger extract advertised it as a remedy for cholera, fever, headache, rheumatism, fever, and nervous disability as well as digestive issues. One product, Lyons Extract, pronounced ginger’s palliative properties as “the most effective the world has ever produced.” Its ad, in the hyperbolic tone typical of the time, boldly stated, “Nothing can be said to strengthen the confidence of medical men in regard to its great power.”
“Ginger has been cultivated as a spice since ancient times and almost from the start people used it to aid digestion and relieve nausea, as well as using it to treat a host of other ailments.”
It’s not surprising, then, that pharmacists had a role in the development of ginger ale as a nonalcoholic brother to ginger beer. Thomas Cantrell, an American apothecary living in Ireland, carbonated his drink with soda water instead of yeast and began exporting the beverage to the U.S. around 1850. This established ginger ale as an American favorite. And according to legend, the Detroit pharmacist James Vernor created a blend of ginger, vanilla, and spices and left it in an oak barrel when he was called off to fight in the Civil War. When he returned, he was delighted by the flavor, and his concoction became a hit in the Midwest. Vernor’s, a fizzy soda with a strong ginger kick, claims to be the oldest ginger ale in the U.S. And in 1904 yet another pharmacist, a Canadian named John J. McLaughlin, created a paler, dryer ginger ale — one that appealed to those who were put off by the sweetness and pungency of Vernor’s. Thus Canada Dry was born.
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Ginger ale was the most popular soda in the U.S. from the late 19th century until World War II — and especially during Prohibition, as it was an ideal mixer for illicit liquor. Customers would pay 35 cents for a 12-ounce bottle when other carbonated beverages fetched a nickel. Greta Garbo’s first spoken line in the 1930 film Anna Christie, was an order for whiskey with ginger ale on the side. (“And don’t be stingy, baby!” she demanded.)
People turned to ginger ale, just as they did to ginger root earlier, when they were feeling under the weather. They continue to do so, even though “it’s questionable whether they actually have ginger contained within the beverage,” said Brett White, a physician at Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group who has written about ginger’s health benefits. “If you actually look at the ingredients, it may not have ginger listed.”
Canada Dry ginger ale says it’s made with “real ginger” on the label. Chris Barnes, a spokesman for Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, which owns Canada Dry and Schweppe’s (another brand of ginger ale), says the sodas do contain real ginger, but the company won’t reveal how much to protect proprietary formulas.
Ginger soothes the stomach because it contains the compound gingerol, which is converted to another kind of compound — a group called shogaols, said Zick. Shogaols relax the gastrointestinal tract by blocking receptors that cause nausea — much like anti-nausea drugs do, Zick said.
Both Zick and White said that what little research has been done has found that ginger — usually in forms other than ginger ale — is more beneficial for nausea related to anesthesia, pregnancy, motion sickness, and chemotherapy than for gastroenteritis. There haven’t been huge clinical trials because “there’s not a lot of financial drive to study on a large scale the impact of a natural substance,” White said. “There’s not a profit to be made.”
Large-scale ginger ale makers don’t make a health claim because “there’s a slew of regulations you’d have to go through,” said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for The NPD Group, a market research firm. Instead, the bottlers market the drink’s freshness. As for its potentially medicinal properties, “they let customers do their marketing for them,” he said. “They don’t have to run through the hoop in regulations.”
While overall soda sales have been on the decline, ginger ales — led by the organic and craft soda movement — have seen a slight increase, said Stanford. He said tracking sales through the cold and flu season would be difficult to do.
Ginger ale is “obviously something consumers do turn to in the holidays and the cold months when they’re not feeling well,” conceded Regan Ebert, senior vice president of marketing for the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. But that’s not how the company wants to position Canada Dry. Instead, in recent years, ad campaigns have stressed its natural freshness, and feature a dreamboat ginger farmer named Jack. Barnes, the Dr. Pepper spokesman, said that, its medicinal uses aside, “it’s a nice, soothing, day-to-day drink.”
Chris Reed, founder of Reed’s Inc., a craft ginger ale, says that unlike the major bottlers, he’s more than happy to advertise ginger ale’s health benefits.
“It’s like an aspirin a day,” Reed said. “I think about a third of our customers use my product for a condition, like digestive issues.” An herbalist, Reed decided to get into the ginger business, and first thought he’d make ginger snaps. “Ginger ale was an afterthought,” he said. But he decided, “Let’s make this fun because I’m kind of a fun guy.”
He formed the company in 1987, and likes to keep his ginger drinks fizzy. Some people also try to soothe nausea by letting sodas go flat and then drinking them. Reed knows some people don’t want carbon dioxide in their stomachs when they’re ill, and he offers ginger candies and other products marketed as “nausea relief.” But he says his niche market has spoken. “I tried putting out non-carbonated ginger beverages, and I know: People like their bubbles.”
This story originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com.