What’s in Season? In southern Ontario from the end of May through June, we start to see two of the three vegetables that are considered ‘perennials’; vegetables that come back for a second year and often more! Asparagus is one of those vegetables and it teaches us a valuable lesson about genetics.
Does a more potent vegetable exist than that of asparagus? Even Ben Franklin wrote about the “disagreeable odour” that comes from eating only a few stems. The unique smell probably starts with asparagusic acid, a sulphur compound found only in asparagus. Add other compounds that smell like garlic and rotten eggs and a small urine sample can clear a room within a half hour of eating the potent stuff. The crazy part is that for many, the smell can go unnoticed.
Lorelei Mucci, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, studies gene alterations and how these alterations or mutations change the coding of the body making everyone’s sense of smell, different. Her team has found three mutations amongst 871 genes that change the shape of a smell receptor. This change in the smell receptor is what individualizes how we smell everything. In other words, no two people will smell a freshly baked pie the same way.
Here’s where the genetics lesson comes in. It’s an odd quirk of human evolution but it is happening all the time. Genes are mutating in response to the body’s attempt to keep us alive. When we eat the nutritious asparagus, the body quickly tries to get rid of the disagreeable by-product. In response, half of the population, without knowing it, has undergone a mutation process that protects the body from the ‘disagreeable odour’. If we know it happens with the simple act of eating asparagus, we can only imagine what the body is doing when it encounters a chronic state such as high blood sugar. At any given time, the body is altering its gene expression to protect us and eventually those genes get passed down whether we need them to or not. This is why some people can live to be 100 years old with less than ideal biomarkers of high triglycerides, high blood pressure, or low HDL cholesterol. They have developed or inherited mutant genes that protect them against the biomarkers that increase the risk of heart disease.
What’s the take home message? We must do what we can to give the body the ideal environment so that it can focus on the gene alterations that it needs to do; the ones that are out of our control. Eat well, eat enough, and remember that even if we don’t smell your own asparagus pee, someone else can! Here’s an easy way to cook asparagus!