BLOG: Sneak science into your diet

Mel Barber

“Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?” is a science book with a title guaranteed to make a third-grader giggle.

Pretty sneaky strategy there. It’s the educational equivalent of the healthier-food trick of adding pureed black beans or zucchini to brownies. Surprise: You’re learning!

And the best part? It works. A delightful read, “Asparagus” is filled with trivia about the things we eat every day. The book unlocks the mysteries for non-chemists, turning complex concepts into easily digestible bites.

Andy Brunning's "Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?" is a smart, funny tour through the oddities of food science. (Mel Barber - The York Dispatch)

Author Andy Brunning, who also runs the science blog Compound Interest, says he had “great fun” researching for the book and learned new things along the way.

“When writing the section on wasabi it was surprising to learn that most of the wasabi we eat in restaurants is almost never real wasabi,” he says. “The chemicals that give it its pungency evaporate quickly, and fresh wasabi loses its flavor after about 15 minutes. Most of the stuff served in restaurants outside of Japan is simply a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring!”

The wasabi that comes with your sushi probably isn't real wasabi paste. Horseradish, with a bit of mustard and food coloring, accomplishes a similar enough effect to fool your senses. (Mel Barber - The York Dispatch)

Other fun facts: If you hate the taste of Brussels sprouts, you might be able to blame genetics for making you more sensitive to a bitter chemical compound. A similar issue is the reason you have that one friend who thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

The book has fun tracking down some myths, too. Has Mom always told you to eat your carrots if you want to see in the dark? Hogwash. The British military was behind that falsehood, which originated in World War II propaganda.

Do you avoid Chinese takeout with MSG because it’s bad for you? Not so fast. Glutamic acid is also in tomatoes and cheese — so unless you’re dealing with headaches, nausea and fatigue from those, too, the problem probably isn’t the MSG.

Can you get out of eating your apple using the old, "but there's cyanide in apples, Mom!" excuse? Yes and no. You would have to eat a lot of apple seeds to create a cyanide danger. But you might want to watch out for apricots. (Mel Barber - The York Dispatch)

Correcting those misperceptions is a joy for Brunning.

“It’s good to try to dispel food myths, as there are a lot out there,” he says. “I enjoy finding the comprehensive evidence against such myths, which is often in scientific papers which can be difficult for non-specialists to get their heads around, and turning it into something that’s accessible for everyone. It’s always satisfying when someone gets in contact to say that they learned something from the graphics.”

Each topic in the book is covered in two pages, with one page an easy-to visualize graphic and the other a short explanation answering questions about chocolate, coffee, mushrooms, chili peppers, beans, fish and other food.

Being a chef capable of improvising in the kitchen usually means knowing what adding or substituting ingredients will do. The hands-on knowledge might come via instinct or trial and error, but it doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the reason. “Asparagus” answers all of the “why” questions you never think to ask.

“There are so many things about food we take for granted, like onions making your eyes water, and the burning sensation of chili peppers, that can be explained using chemistry,” Brunning says.

Has a friend ever dared you to bite into a chili pepper? Learn exactly how hot the burning sensation will be and why you should have a glass of milk on standby. (Mel Barber - The York Dispatch)

The book covers a wide range of food topics. Want to know why beer bottles are made from dark glass or why red wine is dry and bitter? Or, perhaps more importantly, whether you should store chocolate in the fridge?

“Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?: Food Trivia Explained With Science” will give you the answers. For Brunning, the most important message is adding truth in our brains about the foods we put in our stomachs.

“Chemicals are a part of your everyday life whether you know it or not,” he says. “Instead of being wary of them, we should embrace learning more about them, because they can have some pretty entertaining stories.”

— Reach Mel Barber at

How to get the book

“Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?: Food Trivia Explained With Science,” written by Andy Brunning and published by Ulysses Press, hit bookstores earlier this summer. The 128-page softcover trivia book will run you $15.95 (or less, with retailer discounts). Electronic editions are available online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million.

For more information about the book, visit For more fun facts about chemistry that you don’t have to be a smartypants to understand, visit Brunning’s blog at