The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder’s treatise, On Agriculture.
But it wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus “affects the urine with a foetid smell … and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys.” Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus “shall give our urine a disagreeable odor.” Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon.
Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various “sulfur-containing compounds” and, simply, “metabolites.”
More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn’t experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid. The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor.
The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid. Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let’s turn to an equally compelling, but there is more answerable question.
WHY DOESN’T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure. For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn’t.
Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn’t. It turns out we’re not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it. An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they’re in the majority. Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don’t go hand-in-hand, either.
The 1980 study found that some people who don’t produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person’s urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren’t able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.