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Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?

12/02/2010

“The precious essence that I recognized again when, all night long following a dinner at which I had eaten [asparagus], they played, in farces as crude and poetic as a fairy play by Shakespeare, at changing my chamber pot into a jar of perfume.” – Marcel Proust

Asparagus is the best vegetable. It is more expensive than most produce and like other comestibles as coffee and booze, it’s an acquired taste. Use it as a side dish with dinner and it provides an instant upgrade. It also comes in three sweet colors; purple, white, and green. If tomatoes or carrots are Coldplay, then asparagus is Animal Collective.

Surprisingly, Peru is the world’s leading producer of asparagus. Predictably, the United States is the top importer of the stalky green while taking third place in worldwide production. Clearly, Americans can’t get (or grow) enough of the stuff. A quick look at facebook reveals asparagus groups with hundreds of members. In fact, it is so revered that the cities such as Stockton, CA and Hart, MI hold annual asparagus festivals. Hart’s soiree is particularly glam, featuring a parade that commences with the crowing of an asparagus queen. In 2008 Michele Amstutz was crowned Hart’s Mrs. Asparagus at the Oceana County Agriculture Banquet. She is the granddaughter of retired asparagus farmers Don and Marilyn Walsworth. In keeping with the theme, she married into a family of asparagus farmers when she wed Robert Amstutz, also of Hart. They may be the world’s first and only asparagus power couple. Amstutz said she was ecstatic to be an ambassador of such a wonderful crop. She was awarded with a trip to Holland’s Tulip Festival where she sat atop a purple-and-green parade float, preaching “how much it means to farmers when we support them.” Often left out of her promotional chatter is one of asparagus’ most defining qualities; its redolent disturbance on urine.

What does this mean to you? Everything when you think about it. You have company one night. Maybe you grill some asparagus, drizzle it in olive oil and season it. Everyone remarks on how delicious the vegetable is and you secretly grin at how easy it was to make. Dinner is a hit. The asparagus has been devoured and now familiarizing itself with your digestive tract. After everyone departs, you polish off the remaining Malbec, feel lonely, and fall asleep with the stove fan still running. The next morning arrives with little fanfare save for a hangover and the skunk-piss you just took. Through your headache you can’t help but wonder why the asparagus still smells and is in your urine. At least you’re reminded of everybody’s compliments. You head to work.

But why does it smell? Scour the internet and you’ll find varying theories from genetics to diuretics, some accurate, many outlandish. Like onions and garlic, asparagus is an herbaceous perennial and a member of the lily family. Mostly harvested as a vegetable crop, it is originally native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. When consumed, Asparagus releases a sulphurous compound called mercaptan or the more science-y moniker Methanethiol. When your digestive system breaks down mercaptan, by-products are released that cause a strange smell. And by strange I mean bad, like rotten-egg bad. This is because mercaptan is actually found in rotten eggs. It also turns up in bad breath, crude oil, and animal feces. The same compounds contribute to human flatus. When you say your piss (or breath) smells like shit, you couldn’t be more accurate. The process is so quick that your urine can develop the distinctive smell within 15 to 30 minutes of your guests leaving you. Alone. Drunk. Watching Poker After Dark.
It’s been widely believed that only a selected few are capable of producing Methanethiol-juice. Other avenues of thought have suggested that it’s not the failure in production, but the inability to smell the compound. Both are wrong.

In the 1980’s, Chinese, French, and Israeli scientists proved that asparagus pee is a universal trait. Of the three different studies, the Israelis cleaned house. In the 307 people studied, every single subject detected the distinctive odor of asparagus urine, even in instances where the eater/pisser was unable to detect it himself. Based on the strength in findings of each of the three studies, it is now believed that most people produce the odorous compounds after eating asparagus, but only about 22% of the population have the autosomal genes required to smell them. So yes, it is genetic, but only in your nose and not in your kidneys. So, yes, you eat asparagus, you end up pissing bad breath. Or oil. Or horseshit. Or whatever the hell it smells like.

At least now you know how to talk about it.

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