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Some may be super-attuned to certain smells

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Local scientists are reporting a breakthrough in their research on asparagus-scented urine. Sensory psychologist Marcia Pelchat says her team has cracked the Great Asparagus Pee Mystery: Some people say their urine has a distinct sulphur odor after they eat the spring vegetable, others say they’ve never noticed that smell.

(Photo: Flickr/goosegrease)

So what accounts for the difference? The asparagus question may seem frivolous, but the answer is leading scientists to a better understanding of our basic sense of smell.

Pelchat: There are definitely people who are less sensitive to the after-asparagus aroma in urine and we found that that is related to a genetic marker.

Scientists at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center conducted the study. They recruited 38 people to eat roast asparagus, then sniff samples of their own urine – and others’.

The team also confirmed that some bodies break down asparagus differently, so for those people, there is no sulphur odor.

The sense of smells dims as we age and may affect health and safety issues such as personal hygiene, detecting spoiled food and smoke.

Pelchat says an inability to perceive an odor is called anosmia.

Pelchat: You could have one person who who’s very sensitive to the smell of mildew, and another who isn’t. That’s a big problem in my house, I can smell it a mile away and my husband can’t. So I’m constantly throwing things out and he’s asking: Why?

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