In the 1994 movie Wolf, Jack Nicholson deliberately irrigates the suede shoes of his poisonous colleague played by James Spader at a shared urinal. He responds to Spader’s objection with: “Just marking my territory” and emphatically adds: “Asparagus!”
Most of the audience chuckled… others didn’t get it. Lucky them!
You gotta love asparagus for polarising people. They love it or hate it. And invariably there’s an exchange of knowing glances involved in its discussion. Yup, asparagus sure can make your urine smell, but not everyone’s. Those left out of the joke are also happily left out of the perfumed embarrassment. It’s an equitable quid pro quo.
It’s the compounds mercaptan, specifically methyl mercaptan, and asparagine found in asparagus that are the offensive culprits. Methyl and ethyl mercaptan can be found in wine and can be a clearly identifiable fault. Methyl mercaptan is also found in blood, feces, garlic, eggs, cheese and rotting organic matter in wetlands. But it is the way that the human body breaks it down that results in the pungency of the territory-marking attributes. However, only about half the world’s population has the gene that breaks down the offending asparagus compounds. The other half don’t – and live in ignorant bliss.
While asparagus is a natural diuretic helping to clean and revitalise the kidneys and bladder, it is also a source of vitamins C and E, folate, dietary fibre and potassium. But it also has the highest concentration of glutathione, which according to the US Institute for Cancer Prevention has been found to be associated with the protection against some cancers. The protein, glutathione, is composed of amino acids: cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine, which have the ability to bind to fat-soluble toxins.
Asparagus is also considered an aphrodisiac in many different cultures. According to an Arab manual on such things (and they should know, the word originated from the Persian asparag for sprout or shoot): “A daily dish of asparagus first boiled then fried in fat with egg yolks and a sprinkling of condiments will produce considerable erotic effects”. Science would concur, pointing to a compound inherent in this member of the lily family that has been attributed to the production of sex hormones.
And if all this talk about aromas, cancer cures and eroticism is too much information, then be aware that in the garden, the aforementioned asparagine has been found to be efficacious in repelling nematodes. So this ‘King of Vegetables’ as France’s King Louis XIV dubbed it, is also a good little companion plant for the control of root pests… albeit a delicious if not arousing and stinky one.