Until about middle school, I got an annual ear infection, as well as a bout of strep throat about once every two years. For these ailments, I would inevitably be prescribed what was referred to in my home as “the pink stuff.” It was the antibiotic amoxicillin, in its pediatric liquid form, and it was a bright, chemical pink. It was delicious.
My recurrent infections may have given me more experience with amoxicillin than the average child, but the flavor was beloved enough that the internet nostalgia factory has picked up on it. A subreddit dedicated to nostalgia has a couple posts about it, one with more than 13,000 likes. There are rhapsodic tweets, and pins on Pinterest, and the pink stuff even made a cameo on a BuzzFeed list of ’90s childhood memorabilia. (Although amoxicillin has been on the market since 1972.)
What does it taste like, to inspire such devotion and meme-ing? That’s harder to answer than it seems like it should be. The flavor is often described as bubble gum, but that’s not how I remember it. I remember something fruitier, an artificial strawberry-adjacent taste.
“In my recollection it’s like a chalky, not-very-sweet strawberry, or other anonymous fruit,” says Nadia Berenstein, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the history of flavor science. “I remember a sort of anonymous fruitiness. But definitely the chalkiness.”
An informal office poll that I sprang on my co-workers who remembered taking the drug in their youth yielded mixed results. A couple votes for bubble gum, a couple for “chalk.” My colleague Vann Newkirk provided the most evocative description: “cheap strawberry syrup, but with an aftertaste somewhere between chewing rubber gloves and aspartame.”
If I concentrate, I can summon the sense memory of the taste like a ghost to the back of my throat, and I believe I’m remembering it correctly, but I can’t quite describe it accurately. So I went on a quest to figure out just what this flavor is, where it came from, and maybe, just maybe, to taste it again.
* * *
The original formulation of amoxicillin was created by Beecham Laboratories, which later, through an elaborate series of mergers, became GlaxoSmithKline. I contacted Glaxo to see if anyone there could shed some light on where the flavor came from. “What I have been told is that the pink bubble-gum flavor which I think you are referring to was developed specifically for the U.S. market at a former GSK site in Bristol, Tennessee, and the reason for this was that the penicillin molecule has an inherently bitter taste,” a spokesperson for the company told me in an email. (Amoxicillin is in the penicillin family.) The artificial sweetener aspartame is sometimes described as bitter—so my colleague Vann was really onto something there.
But amoxicillin has been available as a generic drug since shortly after it went on the market in the 1970s, which means the version of the drug that I and my fellow ’90s babies had was probably not usually the one manufactured by GSK. “Amoxicillin is one the first drugs that developed a robust generic market,” says Jeremy Greene, a professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. A further impediment to trying to pinpoint the precise flavor I remember is that apparently many pharmacies now offer a variety of flavors that can be added to any children’s medicine.
I bothered a pharmacist at my local CVS to help clear this up. Though most of the amoxicillin he had in stock was in pill form, he also showed me a jar of powder, which he would mix with water to create the pink liquid suspension, should a child be prescribed some. “I can smell it, you know, when I prepare [it],” he told me. “It has a flavor.” It’s fruity, he said, “somewhere between strawberry and cherry.” This particular CVS gets its amoxicillin from Teva, one of the biggest manufacturers of generic drugs, the pharmacist said.
Here’s where it gets interesting. On Teva’s website, two of the four strengths of liquid amoxicillin the company offers are listed as being “Mixed Berry Flavored.” The other two are described as “Pink, Fruit-Gum Flavored.” Now, Teva is not the only generic manufacturer of amoxicillin by any stretch (one made by Sandoz that I found contains raspberry and strawberry flavors). But the existence of these two similar-but-different flavors might explain why some people remember the pink stuff as tasting like bubble gum, while others remember fruitiness.
Another potential explanation is that human memory is endlessly fallible, but I like the idea that favors my detective skills more.
* * *
Taste is a factor in children’s medicine in a way that it’s just not for adults, who are prescribed pills for most things. And children often need the extra enticement of a familiar flavor to be coaxed into taking their medicine. But flavor used to be considered a more integral part of medicine for all ages—more than just something added to make it palatable.
Under the humoral theory of medicine, Berenstein says, “tastes themselves were correlated with the body’s humors.” So if someone’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—were seen to be out of balance, they’d likely be advised to avoid certain tastes, and eat more of others. A melancholic person, for example, might want to avoid vinegar (sour—just like them), and eat more sugar to balance themselves out. “It wasn’t about a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down,” Berenstein says. “A spoonful of sugar was the medicine.”
And for bitter herbal preparations that served as medicine, Greene adds, the bitter taste was “proof of efficacy”: If it tastes gross, it must be working. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western understanding of medicine came to focus on active ingredients. What Greene calls “the sensuous dimensions of medicine” got “systematically written out of the stories we tell ourselves about pharmaceuticals and the way they work.” But medicines “nonetheless have physical properties,” he says, “and those physical properties certainly influence our experience of them.”
Making children’s medicines tasty makes the experience of being sick less stressful for kids, and helps doctors and parents get kids to take them peacefully. But there is also the danger, if they are too tasty, that kids will consume them in secret, and overdose.
Children’s aspirin is a stark example of that. St. Joseph Aspirin for Children was released in 1947. It was orange-colored and orange-flavored and often advertised as “candy aspirin.” And “within a few years of its introduction, the incidence of aspirin poisoning in young children increased dramatically, almost five hundred percent,” writes Cynthia Connolly, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the history of pediatric health care.
“I, myself, am a former aspirin-poisoned child,” Connolly told me. It happened in 1961 or 1962, when she was 3 or 4 years old, she says. “My parents kept it up high because they knew I loved it. It had a wonderful granular taste; it tastes like a SweeTart. One time when they weren’t looking, I got up there and got the St. Joseph Aspirin for Children, took almost the whole bottle, and then fell off the counter and broke my arm. While still holding the medicine by the way.” Her parents found her when she screamed, and she had to go to the hospital and get her stomach pumped—and her arm set.
The dangers of candy aspirin led to the development of the safety cap, Connolly writes. And the pharmaceutical industry came to realize that it probably wasn’t a great idea to sell medicine as “candy.”
“You may recall the public service announcements from the ’80s,” Greene says, “of pills singing a chorus that went, ‘We’re not candy, even though we look so fine and dandy. Too much of us is dangerous.’ It’s a great song.”
* * *
It has been suggested to me by a couple well-meaning dream-crushers that perhaps if I tasted amoxicillin again today, it wouldn’t be the same, either because the formulation had changed, or because my palate had. Or, perhaps it was never really as delicious as I remember.
“Our memories, especially memories of being patients, are so wrapped up in moments and experience and become invested over time with additional meaning,” Greene says. “Either your vulnerability at that moment and the ability of the medicine to help you feel better, or perhaps a certain childhood relishing of this sick role, of remembering those days in which you get to stay home and watch television. I think it’s likely that you’re both encountering nostalgia for flavor and the way that particularly significant memories are oftentimes associated with smells and flavors.”
I was thwarted many times in my attempts to taste amoxicillin again. Greene initially offered to let me do a taste test, then retracted that offer after thinking it through. I asked colleagues to let me know if their kids got prescribed the drug. One person had just thrown some away, and the only other person who got some while I was reporting—my colleague Ian Bogost—lives in Georgia. Ian and I talked about finding a way to get the amoxicillin to DC, but ultimately we were too worried about the legality of transporting his child’s prescription across state lines, just so I could taste it (even if it would be a very small taste).
But while I was reporting on amoxicillin’s flavor, several people mentioned to me that the flavor they most associated with childhood illness was that of grape Dimetapp cough syrup. Greene was one of those people—but he says he recently got it for his kids and tasted it, and “it does not live up to the nostalgia that I have generated for it in my head.”
As it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to get to taste amoxicillin again, I thought that at least my colleagues could revisit their childhood memories. Unlike the flavor I was seeking, Dimetapp can be purchased over the counter. So—not that I encourage anyone else to do this—I purchased some cough syrup and fed it recreationally to myself and my colleagues. We had a Dimetapp taste test at my desk, taking very small sips of the bright purple liquid off of plastic spoons from the kitchen.
It’s not something I ever had as a kid. My adult assessment is that it tastes pretty good. Like a melted grape Jolly Rancher, but slightly more acrid. It did not disappoint my boss Ross Andersen, who grew up with it, though. “That’s like the Proustian madeleine,” he said, after tasting a couple drops. It took him right back to his temps perdu. Vann Newkirk similarly found it “classic” but perhaps a little more medicinal than he remembered.
But my madeleine moment was not to be. Regarding his daughter’s amoxicillin, Ian assured me, “It tastes just like you think it does,” which is both small consolation, and an impossible thing for him to know with any authority.
“I’m trying to think of what the analogy is here,” Greene says. “Not the forbidden fruit, but somehow this is almost like a sort of ambrosia that you have no access to.”
Part of the nostalgic aura that surrounds amoxicillin’s flavor may well be because there isn’t a great way for adults to taste it again, unless you have kids who get prescribed it. It’s easier to romanticize something that can never be recaptured again—much like youth itself.