We savor food in many forms, from succulent meats and crumbly cheeses to creamy spreads and crispy crusts. Food nourishes, satisfies, and, most importantly, gives us life.
But not everything is gravy when it comes to culinary consumption, as some of what we eat (and drink) comes packed with surprises. A few foods fuel bizarre reactions from the moment we take a bite, while others combine with outside forces to turn our dining experiences sour. Here are seven such food-fueled oddities that can flummox the senses.
To be clear, many gourmands enjoy topping their fish, salads, and soups with a smattering of this herb. However, others feel like they’re biting into a bar of Ivory Spring. The reason appears to be a matter of genetics. One 2012 study showed that people equipped with certain olfactory receptor genes are more prone to detecting cilantro's aldehydes, compounds also commonly found in household cleaning agents and perfumes. While the percentage of the population that suffers from this fate tops out at about 20%, the resulting taste is apparently awful enough to spark passionate responses of the sort found on Facebook's I Hate Cilantro page, which has more than 26,000 likes.
Most of us have endured this unpleasant situation at least once. The culprit is a toothpaste ingredient called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which produces the foam that builds during vigorous brushing. Unfortunately, SLS also temporarily blocks the tongue's sweet receptors, while simultaneously destroying the compounds in saliva that suppress our bitter receptors. The result is a double-whammy for our sensitive taste buds, which leaves us to taste only the unsavory citric acid from what would otherwise be a refreshing drink.
While experts ranging from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to Popeye the Sailor Man have praised the nutritional benefits of spinach, few warn about the "chalky'' feel that can come with munching on these leafy greens. The effect, known as "spinach tooth," comes from the oxalic acid and calcium present in the vegetable; ground together in our mouths, they produce easily detectable crystals of calcium oxalate. These crystals are potentially problematic to some people, as they dissolve poorly in water and may cause the formation of kidney stones. The rest of us can simply boil, steam, or apply lemon juice to spinach to offset the unpleasant mouthful that accompanies our daily supplies of iron, fiber, and vitamin C.
Not to be outdone by its fellow healthy side dish, asparagus comes with the unfortunate side effect of producing strong-smelling urine. This comes from the asparagusic acid present solely in this particular vegetable, which breaks down into sulfur byproducts upon digestion and surfaces in urine as soon as 15 minutes after eating. Not everyone is genetically capable of detecting this odor. One study published in 2016 found that roughly 60% of participants reported nothing funky in the bathroom after ingesting asparagus. Regardless, for the people who do experience the aroma, it’s perfectly natural.
Even the most disciplined among us occasionally give in to the temptation to down a bag of salty snacks, for which we may be punished with noticeably swollen fingers, toes, or lips. Officially known as edema, this puffiness stems from the uptick of sodium and our body's response of pumping more water into the bloodstream, which results in fluid-bloated tissue. Edema can also be a sign of more serious health problems, but those who simply enjoy a few too many fries during a weekend lunch with friends can beat back the swelling by drinking lots of water, ingesting high-potassium foods, and sweating it out in the gym.
Sometimes sprinkled on salads and almost certainly found in pesto-flavored dishes, pine nuts have drawn attention in recent years for producing a metallic aftertaste that can linger for up to two weeks. After reports of "pine nut syndrome" or "pine mouth" first surfaced in Belgium early in the new millennium, investigators followed the trail to the Far East, with seeds of the Chinese white pine (Pinus armandii) fingered as the likely source of this unusual but harmless affliction. It's still unclear as to what exactly causes the metallic taste, although one professor at the University of Idaho suggested that the seeds stimulate a hormone that increases the production of bitter-tasting bile.
This one isn't the result of consuming a particular food, but an oft-unforeseen outcome of the food's residue lingering on hands and arms. Citrus fruits such as lemons and limes contain chemicals called furanocoumarins, which can produce poison ivy-like effects of discoloration, inflammation, and blistering when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Technically called phytophotodermatitis, the condition is also known as “bartender dermatitis” for the unfortunate souls who experience it after preparing citrus-infused drinks in outdoor locales. And while prevention isn't as simple as wiping off errant juice with a towel — a more thorough soap-and-water scrubbing is required — the good news is that these rashes are usually treatable with cold compresses and topical creams.