The Mystery of the Maple Syrup Smell

There was no doubt about it: she woke up smelling like waffles. A writer tries to get to the bottom of an enigmatic aroma.

Mr. T in DC/flickr

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 coed 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 3. 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 co-worker 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.

My own maple aroma got me thinking about another smelly mystery. New Yorkers may recall a sweet bouquet that has wafted through Manhattan on occasion for the past five years. Early last year, the Office of Emergency Management was bombarded by complaints of a caramel-esque scent, prompting the Bloomberg administration to launch an investigation. The scent was traced across the river to New Jersey, to a North Bergen flavor plant, Frutaron. The company’s facility, among a handful of others, was processing fenugreek, a spice most often used in Indian cooking that also happens to be the principal flavoring component in imitation maple syrup.

Fenugreek contains an extremely potent aromatic compound called solotone. Also present in lovage, some aged rums, and molasses, solotone passes through the body, and when consumed in heavy amounts, can prompt a sweet maple-y odor in sweat and urine. Fenugreek is widely used as a milk stimulator for lactating mothers; the Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health has documented incidents of sugary smells in newborn children from mothers who consumed fenugreek prior to labor.


Fenugreek! Fenugreek. Fenugreek? Hmm. I was still flabbergasted. I had not eaten Indian food for weeks and the only fenugreek in my apartment was in a dust-covered tube aging in the back of a kitchen cabinet. When I Googled fenugreek images, the mystery was solved. Fenugreek is a small spindly plant with short roots and green teardrop-shaped leaves whose beige pellet seeds are most often used as a spice, adding a savory depth to curries and rice dishes. However, the leguminous plant—leaves, stems, and all—is an important green in Indian, Yemeni, and Ethiopian cuisines. Rich in protein, methi, as it is known in Hindi, is often sautéed like spinach.

The week prior, a friend had given me a bunch of grass-colored, crisp greens that I thought was a variety of Indian watercress. I made them into a peppery salad with radish and scallion, in effect turning my body into a sweet-smell-emanating factory. Because digestion takes several hours, and the release of solotone several hours more, the effect of raw fenugreek on my pores lasted for days.

To prove my estimations true, last week I hopped a train to Jackson Heights and picked up a bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves in an Indian grocery. I ate them raw in another salad, and I can already smell the haunting aroma returning. Now I’m starting to crave a short stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes, artificial syrup pooling.