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Things to know about asparagus

Having recently overindulged in roast asparagus (and is there any other way?) two odd stories came to mind.

First off there's the whole asparagus urine smell thing. Many people say that their urine smells odd after they've eaten asparagus. Fine. Lots of things affect urine's smell and colour. But equally, many other people say asparagus has no effect whatsoever on their urine. And for a long time the geneticists and the biochemists had a simple explanation. The smellies converted asparagus into things called mercaptans, which happen to be among the smelliest molecules in the world. The non-smellies didn't.

Then, as I remember, some bright spark, probably a smelly, discovered that he or she could indeed smell a supposedly non-smelly's mercaptan-laced asparagurine. (Are you still there?) The non-smellies didn't lack the the ability to produce the asparagus mercaptan. They lacked the ability to detect it. And the proportion seems to vary from population to population.

But no! Turns out both ideas are correct, a fact1 every doctor should know. Some people don't produce the smell, and some people can't smell it. Simple, eh?

Retailing this to a colleague, many years ago, he added a further twist. American airmen had tinned asparagus in their emergency rations. Not, as RAF pilots supposed, yet another facet of the effete side of the US military, but an essential survival aid. My source claimed that the tin carried instructions to the effect that the asparagus were to be eaten little and often, and that every time the airman had to pee he should do so over the side of his liferaft having first prepared the emergency fishing line, because smelly asparagus pee was a dynamite fish attractant.

Nice story. But even in this internet age of all information being available everywhere I can't find supporting evidence, at least not within the first couple of pages of a couple of googles. Perhaps the person who came to my rescue after the Spallanzani fiasco can help on this one too.


  1. Link updated by hand, and alas now behind a paywall. 

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