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Next Monday, 23 April, is St George’s Day and the start of the annual
You may well think that this could be the cue for a “last word” piece about the medicinal uses of asparagus. The plant certainly does have some mildly beneficial health effects — and, indeed, its scientific name, Asparagus officinalis, suggests that it has medicinal properties, since “officinalis” generally denotes a plant that has been included in the pharmacopoeias because of its healthful attributes.
However, a more intriguing characteristic of this vegetable is the strong odour it can impart to one’s urine. So let us look at that instead.
In 1702, Louis Lémery, in his ‘Treatise of all sorts of foods’, wrote that asparagus causes “a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows”. And in a 1735 essay on “the nature of aliments”, John Arbuthnot wrote: “asparagus . . . affects the urine with a foetid smell.” Later in the same century, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels in about 1781, wrote: “A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour.”
Contrariwise, Marcel Proust (1871–1922) wrote in ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ that asparagus “transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume”.
It was once thought that only a minority of people excreted odorous urine after eating asparagus, but recent research suggests that we almost all produce smelly pee. The difference is that only about 22 per cent of us have the olfactory gene that allows us to detect the odour.
As a lover of English asparagus, I am more than content to be among the 78 per cent who are denied this special gift.