“However, no matter how hungry I get, I won’t be peeing on my food anytime soon.” — Court
Considering that that quote comes from the woman I share eating utensils with, I suppose that should make me happy. My epicurean flatmate broaches the subject in light of new dehydrated foods for soldiers that can be prepared with the addition of very dirty water or, indeed, their own urine. As Richard Riordan says, “That’s nifty.” This is one dining innovation that thankfully won’t be rated on the Court-wishes-she-was-a-food-critic scale.
Conversation about the food’s possibilities led naturally to talk of a related subject: the phenomenon known as “asparagus pee.” Some readers will have no idea what I’m talking about. Others will know exactly what I mean. All of you probably want to stop reading right now. Read on, for the topic turns out to have a rich and fragrant history.
A little research — consisting of Googling the phrase “asparagus urine gene” — reveals that the first known reference to it is in a 1731 book by Queen Anne’s physician in which he notes that “asparagus… affects the urine with a foetid smell (especially if cut when they are white) and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys; when they are older, and begin to ramify, they lose this quality; but then they are not so agreeable.” By 1866 the Grand Dictionnaire Universel could declare that “tout le monde connaît l’odeur fétide qu’elle communique à l’urine.”
However, publicity in the United States had to wait for Babe Ruth to turn down an offered plate of asparagus at a dinner party with le bon mot, “…asparagus makes my urine smell funny.” Yet only half the guests laughed at his remark. Was the Babe too subtle for them or were they simply unable to understand his reference?
Scientific studies have since revealed that significant parts of the population lack the ability to detect the odor, no matter how extreme (myself included, in case you were wondering, you little freak). This “anosmia” may be genetic and vary across cultures, reaching as high as about ninety percent in an Israeli sample.
Less clear is whether or not the production of the odor is universal. One study found that only half of Brits produce it, whereas nearly eighty-percent of Americans do. People still on the France-bashing kick will be glad to know that the odor appears universally present among French asparagus eaters. Additional studies (and the subjective nature of urine evaluations) raise the possibility that the early studies were flawed and that the trait exists in all humans.
The chemistry behind all of this remains somewhat in doubt. However, it is suggestive that the first reports of the odor occur at roughly the same time as fertilizers containing sulfur were used on asparagus plants. In fact, the substance asparagusic acid — which contains sulfur — has been shown in laboratory tests to have the same effect as eating asparagus. It may be the causal agent, but further studies must be done to show this conclusively.
That is probably more than you ever wanted to know about asparagus pee. If it’s not, you should read this excellent article by Dr. S. C. Mitchell. It’s is the source for almost all of the facts cited in this entry.
Finally, my research into this lovely topic also turned up this, yet another example of the state’s heavy hand putting a creative entrepreneur out of business.