Saturday, February 7, 2009

Eye on Smell Culture: Fenugreek

Residents of New York City received a lesson in the complex nature of molecules when the source of a pervasive maple-like scent that periodically invaded local neighborhoods was revealed as fenugreek. On several occasions optimal weather conditions carried the smell from Frutarom’s flavor processing plant in New Jersey and delivered it into nostrils of citizens whose complaints have filled 311 call logs with reports of the mysterious odor since 2005.

Experts believe that fenugreek is native to India (though some speculate that the plant is of Iranian origin). The ground seeds, which taste like a savory fusion of celery and maple, are used in a variety of curry powder mixtures. In the flavor business, extract of fenugreek is used to add maple, burnt sugar and caramel flavors to processed foods. The molecule in fenugreek that smells like maple syrup is sotolone (4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone). Breastfeeding mothers who take fenugreek to increase milk production are familiar with an interesting effect of the molecule; it produces a faint odor of maple syrup on their skin, in their sweat and in their urine.

Author Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin serves as an encyclopedic reference for both perfumers and flavorists. In light of recent events, the author’s description of fenugreek is prescient, “The characteristic odor of fenugreek extract is a celery-like spiciness, a coumarinic-balsamic sweetness and an intense, almost sickeningly strong, lovage-like or opopanax-like note of extreme tenacity. The diffusive power of the odor of this material is usually underestimated by far.”

One of the functions of the sense of smell is survival. When New Yorkers became suspicious of a pervasive scent that wasn't a part of their native environment they were listening to their instincts; a response reinforced by 9/11 and the ensuing aftermath. It didn’t matter that the aromatic quality of the scent was innocuous; it was invasive and unnatural.

Repeated exposure to Frutarom’s occasional “maple eau” may no longer provoke fear, but it will be associated with invasiveness every time it makes an unwanted olfactive appearance in New York City neighborhoods (which it may continue to do as the event is not caused by a lack of compliance on Frutarom’s part and is subject to weather conditions). The question of whether or not local residents will continue to make a stink about it remains up in the air.


Photo of fenugreek seeds from Diabetes Total Control.