Here’s Why So Many Medicines Are Cherry-Flavored

Just a spoonful of ... cherry? ... helps the medicine go down.
A spoonful of sugar would definitely taste a lot better.
A spoonful of sugar would definitely taste a lot better. / Chris Clor/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Everyone has similar memories of being sick as a child. Whether you were coughing, sneezing, or suffering from a fever, the solution was usually the same: artificially flavored medicine. 

Even if your parents reassured you that the cough syrup or antibiotic would taste “just like candy,” you knew then, just as you know now, that’s not the case. Cherry—which tastes nothing like the sweet, delicious fruit—is usually a drug’s masking flavor of choice. There are a few explanations for why the flavor has historically dominated pharmacy shelves.

One reason so many medicines are cherry-flavored is simply because of the power of association. Before the invention of synthetic drugs, medical professionals turned to bold flavors like cherry to mask the taste of bitter herbal medicine. Products like Dr. Swayne’s Compound Syrup of Wild Cherry (circa 1838) used the stone fruit to help make the concoction more palatable.

Though quite some time has passed since those old-timey herbal products were on the market, the practice of using cherry to flavor medicine has remained. It may not be the most appetizing option, but having something to make cough syrup a bit easier to get down is necessary.

According to Pfizer, up to 50 percent of people struggle to swallow medication—and an unappetizing flavor is a contributing factor. It’s a particularly large problem for kids, who may refuse to take even life-saving medication if it means dealing with something unpleasant. In 2009, one Swiss pharmaceutical company introduced a cherry-flavored malaria drug that was more kid-friendly; before it was available, parents had resorted to crushing the life-saving medicine and combining it with sugar to get kids to choke it down.

Cherry certainly isn’t the only flavor drug companies turn to. Grape is another popular option, and you’ll likely see orange and other citrus flavors on store shelves as well.

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