Dear Straight Dope:
Why is it that most cough medicine are flavored with cherries? Why not kiwi or tangerine or banana?
Matt, Long Beach
SDStaff MsRobyn replies:
Matt, I feel for you, I really do. As I write this, I’m getting over a nasty chest cold that forces me to take Robitussin to get some sleep. And, yes, it’s cherry-flavored. Let me amend that. To me it tastes like cherry kosher wine mixed with a hefty dose of saccharine. (I’ve been taking generic Robitussin, actually, but the real stuff tastes about the same.) Although most syrups are cherry-flavored, as you point out, I’ve got a bottle of grape-flavored children’s Dimetapp. Grape kosher wine mixed with saccharine would be a step up.
But you’re not asking my opinion of cherry cough syrup, rather why the cherry flavor. To find out, we need to look at some history.
Liquid medicines are flavored to mask the unpleasant taste of the drugs they contain. That’s an obvious advantage for any product sold over the counter, so many patent medicine manufacturers added flavoring to their nostrums in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They weren’t working with the synthetic drugs we have today, but the herb-based ingredients in the old patent medicines weren’t particularly palatable either. A common practice was to dissolve the plants in alcohol and flavor them with a sweet syrup. Fletcher’s Castoria, a children’s stomachache remedy, used wintergreen flavoring. The sticky sweetness of Coca-Cola masked cocaine and caffeine, both bitter substances.
But many cough medicines in those days were cherry-flavored, and their names said so. Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, for example, was sold as a remedy for respiratory problems, as was Dr. Swayne’s Compound Syrup of Wild Cherry. Of course, it wasn’t the cherry flavor that cured the cough, but opium. Interestingly, an 1858 ad for Dr. Swayne’s says nothing about opium, although it was legal at the time; Dr. Swayne may have sensed even then that putting a narcotic into your product wasn’t something you wanted to brag about. The fact is, however, that opiates do wonders for coughs; codeine is widely prescribed for serious coughs to this day.
There’s no good reason cough medicine can’t be kiwi- or banana-flavored. But according to Andrew Rosenthal, Pharm.D., cherry’s advantages are that it’s effective at masking bitter drugs, plus it’s cheap and easy to make. If you really can’t stand the taste, pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens can provide other flavors for liquid meds on request. I don’t claim you’ll like them any better, but at least you’ll have a change of pace.
SDStaff MsRobyn, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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