Sometimes I dread going out for Italian food.
Don't get me wrong. Italian ranks among my absolute favorite cuisines. It's just that every time my husband and I go out for Italian, the overpowering aroma of "eau de garlic" follows him around for days. The scent is strong enough to withstand hot showers, extra-strength mouthwash -- even cologne.
My husband's affliction made me wonder: Why do the smells of certain foods stick with us more than others? And why do some foods make us sweat more?
Two experts shared their insights on why some of the most delicious foods cause us to sweat -- and why some produce unappetizing aromas.
Why Some Foods Make You Sweat
Bite into a nuclear hot wing and see how long it takes for those little beads of sweat to pop up on your forehead. The heat you're feeling comes from capsaicin -- a chemical found in the hot peppers used to make your wings.
Capsaicin stimulates nerve receptors in your mouth and essentially "tricks" your nervous system into thinking you're hot. Your body acts much like it does when you're outside in 90-degree heat. Your internal thermostat -- the hypothalamus in your brain -- sends out a signal to activate your sweat glands. Sweat reaches your skin and evaporates, taking the heat from your body with it.
Foods that are hot temperature-wise can also make you sweat. "Hot coffee, hot tea, and hot soups can sometimes make people sweat, even though their whole core body temperature isn't hot," says Dee Anna Glaser, MD, professor of dermatology at St. Louis University School of Medicine.
You Eat, Therefore You Smell
The B.O.-inducing culprits in certain aromatic foods are volatile organic compounds that are released as the body metabolizes these foods, says George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
These compounds make their way into your bloodstream and eventually find a route out of your body. "They come out in your urine, your breath, and your sweat," Preti says.
Why these food compounds make some people smell and not others might have to do with a number of different factors, including how much of the offending substance you eat, the metabolic enzymes in your saliva that break foods down, or your genes, Preti says.
The Most Offensive Foods
Ask anyone which food is to blame for stinky breath and body odor and you're likely to hear "garlic." The reason why it's the garlic and not the tomatoes in Italian food that makes people reek lies in the unique make-up of these foods.
"Smells are based on the chemical nature of the molecule that you're smelling," Glaser says.
In garlic's case, the chemical that you smell on your breath and skin is sulfur. If you've ever gotten a whiff of straight sulfur, you know that it gives off a distinctive and very strong rotten egg smell. "The sulfur compounds just happen to produce a lot of odor that we can perceive at very low thresholds," says Preti.
Garlic isn't alone in making us smell. Some of its relatives in the alliaceous family, including the onion, can also produce a particularly pungent sweat.
The other notorious odor-producing food family is cruciferae, which includes broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Cruciferous vegetables are also loaded with sulfur-containing compounds.
Aromatic spices like curry and cumin can leave a lingering aroma on your skin. That's why you smell like an Indian restaurant for hours after you've eaten at one.
Even a food that doesn't itself have a strong odor can change the way you smell, particularly if you eat enough of it. In one study, a panel of female sniffers was asked to compare the sweat of people who had pigged out on meat for two weeks to the sweat of non-meat eaters. The panel's conclusion: The meat eaters had a more intense and less attractive odor than the non-meat eaters.
How Can I Reduce Food Odors?
There's no magic pill that will stop your sweat from smelling after you've eaten a big plate of pasta with garlic sauce. The only way to prevent smelly sweat is to avoid the offending food entirely.
Glaser says some of her patients have tried drinking a lot of fluid after eating stinky foods. They've told her that the practice reduces body odors, although it doesn't eliminate them.
Sometimes it helps to eat the cooked -- rather than the raw -- form of a food. For example, roasted garlic tends to be less stinky on some people than raw garlic.
Don't Sweat It -- Get Help
Even if you do indulge in a particularly fragrant or spicy meal, any changes to your sweat shouldn't linger.
If you're sweating profusely or there's a new and unusual smell wafting from your skin and it doesn't go away, it might be due to a health problem.
Several different diseases, including diabetes and thyroid disorders, can change the way you smell or cause you to sweat excessively. One rare inherited condition called trimethylaminuria causes people to give off a rotten fish odor. The smell is a result of their bodies not being able to properly break down a fishy-smelling compound found in some foods.
"I think if somebody really has a new issue with their sweat -- it's way too much, it has a foul odor, or there's something very different about it -- they need to check it out with their physician to make sure it's not indicative that something else is going on," Glaser says.