Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell?: And 57 other curious food and drink questions by Andy Brunning
Review by Carrie Bengston
One of the lovely things about springtime is that fresh, locally-grown asparagus is available in the shops. Yum. But, once you’ve cooked it up and eaten with lemon and butter or whatever, what makes the funny smell in your urine when you wee later on?
These and other puzzling Q&As are contained in a new book about chemistry and food by UK writer and Cambridge high school teacher, Andy Brunning. Brunning is best known for his popular chemistry blog Compound Interest <http://www.compoundchem.com/> which he runs in his ‘spare time’.
The book, which goes by different titles depending on whether you wee (UK edition) or pee (US), offers beautifully but simply illustrated answers to 58 ‘food and drink questions’ – questions like why do onions make you cry? How do bubbles enhance the flavour of champagne? Should you keep chocolate in the fridge? And why does bacon smell so good?
It taps into a rich vein of popular interest in (some might say first-world obsession with) food and diet to explain chemistry concepts like optical isomerism, the body’s breakdown of drugs, how fluorescence works, and which molecules give you garlic breath. Brunning deals with these in a chatty but informative style accompanied by his trademark clear, colourful graphics.
In fact, the gorgeous graphics are a real highlight. Those of us in professional communication know the power infographics have to distill facts and narrative into a visually appealing form, shareable on social media. One of the more memorable quirky chem topics on the blog (not in this book thank goodness) was posted for Halloween in 2014. Brunning’s infographic educated readers about the odours dead bodies exude as they decompose. Ew.
After admiring the infographics and text on the Compound Interest blog for several years, I recently bought the apargus wee book for my daughter, who is studying food tech, chemistry and biology at high school. I wasn’t disappointed. She happily leafed through the pages, most inspired by Brunning’s explanation of how popping candy pops.
And so, what’s the answer to our asparagus wee question in the book’s title? The smelly chemical in your urine is a breakdown product of – wait for it – asparagusic acid. Now you know.
Carrie Bengston is a science communicator with Children’s Cancer Institute. A bit of a tragic science nerd, she loves to see research findings reach a wider public and enjoys making that happen. She’s been a member of a book club in her community that reads fiction, occasionally fiction with a science bent, hence this book review.