Five things everyone should know about … Switchel

Illustration by Danielle Lamberson Philipp

1. Switchel is an apple cider vinegar-based beverage. It also contains water and other ingredients such as ginger or honey. Maple syrup, molasses, and fruit juice are common additions.

2. The drink has been around for centuries. Many historians believe that switchel originated in the Caribbean before making its way to North America in the 18th century. According to the book Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch, many colonists blended the beverage at home and enjoyed the tangy flavor of a refreshing and energizing alternative to water.

3. Apple cider vinegar-based drinks like switchel are associated with certain health benefits. They contain high levels of polyphenols (micronutrients found in certain plant-based foods), which may inhibit DNA damage and have a positive impact on cardiovascular health. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that apple cider vinegar may aid in gastrointestinal health.

4. As innovative beverages surge in popularity, new versions of switchel are hitting the market. The UW–Madison Center for Dairy Research (CDR) and the United States Dairy Export Council recently teamed up to create a protein-rich, cherry-flavored variety. The drink combines dairy-based whey protein with tart cherry juice produced in Wisconsin. By adding natural ginger flavor and just a touch of cane sugar, CDR food scientists created a product that contains only 120 calories and a whopping 11 grams of protein per eight fluid ounces. This new take on an old tradition adds to the list of the beverage’s benefits. For one, cherry juice is known to have anti-inflammatory compounds that may help with muscle pain. Whey protein isolate, a filtered and dried by-product of cheesemaking, contains all nine of the essential amino acids. Often referred to as “the building blocks of life,” amino acids are the catalysts for many important bodily functions, including muscle growth and repair. It’s no surprise, then, that the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant is producing this whey protein cherry switchel as a sports recovery drink for UW’s student-athletes.

5. Dairy-based switchels require a few tricks to make them look and taste just right. For the CDR’s cherry switchel, all of the ingredients are mixed together and given about 30 minutes for the whey protein to be fully hydrated prior to pasteurization. This step, along with the right level of acidity (i.e., a low pH), provides the best conditions for a safe and good-quality whey protein drink. The beverage can be pasteurized (heated to 175°F for 16 seconds), bottled, and stored cold for three to four months. It also can be hot-filled (heated to 180°F for two minutes) into bottles for storage at ambient temperature for up to a year.

Hong Jiang is a research specialist at the UW–Madison Center for Dairy Research (CDR). Bekah McBride is the CDR’s communications specialist. Helping U.S. food companies create functional, nutritious, and flavorful dairy-based products is a major goal of the center.