The Mystery of the Maple Syrup Smell


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It all started at the gym. I was jogging on the treadmill, a mile in, when a plume of saccharine-sweet perfume overwhelmed me. I looked to my left—a young co-ed with mascara-coated eyelashes in a pink tank top, pushed into motion. Who puts on body spray before working out? I silently scoffed, continuing my run with sugar snaps and syrup-saturated waffles revolving in mind. Twenty minutes later, she hopped off of her machine, but the smell remained. I sniffed. It was me. I was the one that smelled. I reeked of waffles.

On the subway ride home, with confusion growing, I secretly dipped my nose near shoulder, smelling, utterly confounded. Like Molly Shannon's SNL Superstar character, I kept nervously sniffing myself, trying to understand. This smell was distinct—like caramelizing sugar and fat, like a burst case of Aunt Jemima syrup, like the inside of an IHOP. When had I last eaten maple syrup, I wondered? Months prior, I went to Vermont for some early-season sugaring, bringing home jars of dark amber syrup, but I had not yet cracked the seal.

At home, a little Internet research cranked my anxiety—apparently, smelling like sugar is a red flag for a dangerous metabolic disorder, but that was mostly for persons under the age of three. My sugar consumption was normal, if not a little shallow, and no sticky stack of pancakes or French toast were suspects. I hadn't been to brunch in ages.

The next day the smell remained. At work, when I was reaching up to a high shelf to grab a tray, a coworker meandered by. He turned. "You! Wow, you really smell like ... maple syrup. Weird." My sugary stink was noticeable. To me and to those close, it was almost overwhelming. "I kind of liked it initially but it's starting to make me ill," my boyfriend admitted three days later, like a sick child who stuffed himself with too much toffee ice cream. I needed to find the answer.

Sweat—which contains various trace elements, minerals, and pheromones—is almost completely odorless to humans; most bodily smells are created by the growth of bacteria after perspiration. Nevertheless, the way we smell is influenced by a multitude of factors including gender, health, and genetics. And what we eat can manipulate our particular smells from day to day. Bodily aromas are as unique as fingerprints.

The mole enchiladas you ate for lunch rarely translates directly into a smell, but bodily smells can be redolent of foods—I've smelled friends who mimic vinegary sautéing onions or musty cumin-laced meat. During digestion, certain foods can cause unique aromas to arise. After a garlic-heavy meal, some eaters leak pungent sweat, as their bodies metabolize sulfurous compounds. Garlic is rich in allyl methyl sulfide, which can be exuded through pores the following day. And most of us are familiar with the acrid greenish smell that comes shortly after consuming asparagus, a result of the methyl mercaptan that is released in urine.

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Scarlett Lindeman is a New York City-based food writer and perpetual line-cook. She just received her master's degree in Food Studies from New York University.

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