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Friday, April 18, 2003
 
The mysteries of asparagus

I came across this article yesterday. Here is a link to it but I thought it appropriate to include the whole piece in full.
The English asparagus season is upon us again. Which means it is time for the question that 40% of us are too shy to ask, while the other 60% have no idea what it's all about. The question is: after eating asparagus, why does one's pee smell so extraordinary?

It doesn't depend on age, it doesn't depend on gender, and it doesn't depend on race - although it may have something to do with heredity. But 40% of the population have the most weird-smelling urine soon after eating asparagus - and that is really soon, certainly within 15 minutes.

The heavenly spears contain all sorts of nutritional goodies, including plenty of sulphur-containing amino acids, and for many years it was believed that only the 40-percenters had the gene to break down these amino acids into - among other things - methyl mercaptan (a chemical similar to the one that gives a skunk its smell).

The smell may be odd but not everyone finds it unpleasant. Proust famously remarked that asparagus "...as in a Shakespeare fairytale, transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume".

Then, in 1980, some inspired research was carried out (I'll leave you to imagine what an unpleasant experiment it must have been to undertake). The results suggested that everybody produces methyl mercaptan - it's just that the 60-percenters have noses that can't detect it. Evidently, the poor old 40-percenters can smell not only their own output, but that of the 60-percenters too.

The truth remains unclear. Are the 40-percenters blessed with special kidneys or special noses? It is sad to learn that no further research is underway on this fascinating topic - presumably no one has been able to work it up into the sort of health scare needed to attract research funding these days.

So it doesn't seem to matter whether we produce mercaptans or not - except perhaps socially. One London club - rumoured to have been the Garrick - had for many years a notice saying: "During the asparagus season, members are requested not to relieve themselves into the umbrella stand." One does rather see why.
What a fascinating piece. Personally, my own ersatz research indicates that nobody is unaware of the phenomenon.


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