When I was 19, I had a crusty boyfriend who decided that for health reasons, he was going to eat half a dozen or so raw garlic cloves every day. Which sounded kind of okay, at first; garlic is delicious and antiviral and antifungal and anti-everything-bad, and I'm generally unfazed by garlic breath if it's emitting from someone I love. It seemed like a welcome addition to his diet that otherwise relied heavily on spaghetti with hot sauce and tofu dogs.
But after a week or two, he was a changed man. An insidious scent wafted not only out of his mouth, but also out of his armpits, feet, neck, and hairline. I have a distinct memory of kissing his cheek and tasting an industrial-strength aroma analogous to the bottom layer of a mid-summer New York City dumpster. He was emitting a pungent garlicky venom, 24 hours a day, seemingly from every pore (and orifice) on his body. The garlic ritual had to go—it was me or the garlic.
And so it did, eventually, but my memory of this phase, in addition to some other choice experiences, has since instilled me with a trust in the belief that "you are what you eat"—in other words, whatever you put in your mouth is going to make its way into every weird perspiration, fluid, and mucous that lives in or comes out of you. And as it turns out, we're not imagining it.
Garlic seems to be an obvious culprit in terms of foods that make you smell nasty, as do onions and curry, but there are also some less-predictable scent villains creeping from your esophagus into your armpits. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses proposes that tomatoes, those chumps hangin' around in your pizza and pasta sauce and Caprese salads, contain chemicals called terepenes that boost the pungent bouquet of your sweaty skin folds. This may not present an issue for an inherently delightful-smelling person, but for the guy who inevitably sits next to you on the subway and has a Pigpen-esque cloud of wavy lines and flies surrounding him, it may be worth looking into.
Because doctors are smarter than the rest of us, I asked One Medical Group provider Erica Matluck ND, NP (that stands for naturopathic doctor and family nurse practitioner, FYI) for her professional reading on this matter. Should we really be worried about this? Is this the reason that you just can't seem to get a second Tinder date? Erica broke it down for me.
"The relationship between food and body odor results from the interaction of a few factors in a multi-step process. First, there is the food itself, which has its own chemical make-up and smell. Once consumed, the body breaks down food into smaller compounds. The breakdown process requires various naturally occurring enzymes that individuals may have more or less of, or even lack altogether," she explained. This would account for why some people are more susceptible to this problem than others.
But wait, there's more! "Once the food has been metabolized, the breakdown products exit the body through sweat and oils, where they react with healthy bacteria that live on the skin. An individual's genetic make-up determines both their enzymatic activity—or ability to breakdown specific foods—and the healthy bacteria on the skin, so the relationship between specific foods and body odor can be quite variable. With that said, there are certain enzymes that individuals commonly lack or have less of, making certain reactions or odors more common than others."
Fair enough. But we want the nitty gritty. What's the bad stuff? Erica says that in addition to garlic and onions, "some of the more common foods implicated in body odor are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, and red meat."
Erica's advice is corroborated by a 2000 Salon.com article, which stipulates that eliminating dairy, cruciferous vegetables (i.e., cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus), garlic, and onions improves a lady's most intimate of scents and flavors. Additionally, vegetarians seem to have an upper hand in the personal essence department over their carnivorous counterparts. Meat, booze, and cigarettes result in bitterness or acidity—but you likely already knew that and have no intentions of laying them off just for the sake of hygiene.
On the bright side, there are certainly foods that can make you smell better. Men may not know this, but many curious girls of the 90s and aughts were instructed by fine literary establishments such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan to improve the taste and smell of their body fluids by eating pineapple. It was never really addressed how often or how much one would need to consume, nor how this hypothesis was initially formed. But, the aforementioned Salon.com article quotes certified sexologist Dr. Robert Morgan Lawrence and several other "experts" as confirming that this pineapple rumor is more than behind-the-bleachers lore; it's tried-and-true fact, or as close to fact as something as subjective as body fluid flavor can be. Parsley, as boring and antiquated as it may seem, is also reported to keep things fresh.
Additionally, The Atlantic published a lengthy story in 2010 about how writer Scarlett Lindeman found herself baffled when she went to the gym and started reeking of something reminiscent of waffles, only to later discover that the culprit was fenugreek, a spice that often shows up in Indian cuisine but is also used in the making of imitation maple syrup. Although she found the scent overpowering and cloying, some readers commented that they intentionally ingested fenugreek because they liked smelling like the kitchen of an IHOP. Sometimes things aren't as simple as just olfactorily mimicking precisely what was on your plate—the chemical processing plant that is our digestive system continues to work in mysterious ways.
So it's all true; you are what you eat. And perhaps the stinky among us can now know what to watch out for.
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in April 2014.