Why you should care
Because no one wants to choose between garlic fries and sex.
We all have our dating deal-breakers: reading Tinder messages mid-conversation, mullets (even of the ironic hipster variety), drunkenness that leads to weepiness, describing a recent colonoscopy in lurid detail (you know it’s funny, and we know it’s funny, but somehow it never leads to getting laid).
Few first-date faux pas, however, kill the romance as quickly and surely as steamy, pungent, unavoidable, lingering garlic breath.
So what to do if you slip up and go H.A.M. on garlic fries the night before — and leave your Altoid tin at home? There’s a cure, and while it sounds a little hippie-dippie, it comes to you from science. Researchers have found that nibbling on
raw mint, apples or lettuce
could slay that garlic breath. These foods contain enzymes and antioxidants that probably counteract the chemical reactions that produce odor-causing compounds. In other words, “it’s not the aroma of the thing you’re eating that masks garlic breath,” says John Coupland, president of the Institute of Food Technologists. “It’s the actual chemistry.”
Chewing garlic immediately triggers a cascade of chemical reactions that convert a substance called alliin into allicin, a gas with a garlic odor, followed by several other so-called volatile compounds that also have a garlic odor. Sheryl Barringer of Ohio State University, who led the study, investigates substances that could react with these volatiles to eliminate garlic breath. For this study, she turned her focus to enzymes and antioxidants known as phenols in Fuji apples, iceberg lettuce, spearmint leaves and green tea.
Barringer’s team recruited a volunteer to chew three grams of softneck garlic cloves for 25 seconds and drink water immediately afterward, as a control. For the next hour, the volunteer exhaled into a machine that measured the concentration of volatiles in the breath. The researchers repeated the procedure but swapped out water for raw, juiced or microwaved apples; raw or microwaved lettuce; raw or juiced mint; and green tea.
The researchers measured the concentration of the four most important volatiles responsible for garlic breath. Raw mint resulted in the biggest declines, but raw apple and lettuce also significantly lowered the concentration of all four volatiles. Mint juice and apple juice reduced the concentration of most of the volatiles, but not as much as their raw counterparts. Microwaved apple and lettuce lowered the concentration of two volatiles, while green tea had no effect.
The phenols in these foods probably “destroy the volatile compound so it’s no longer the same compound,” Barringer says. “You no longer smell it.” The stronger a phenolic compound’s antioxidant activity, the faster it probably reacted with the garlic volatiles to lower their concentration. As it turns out, rosmarinic acid, the major phenolic compound in mint, has higher antioxidant activity than the major phenolic compounds in apples, lettuce and green tea. When Barringer’s lab mixed garlic with the major phenolic compounds in mint, apples and green tea in a separate experiment, rosmarinic acid caused the biggest drops in garlic volatile concentrations.
Why did raw foods outperform heated and juiced foods? Although all the foods studied contain enzymes that speed up the reactions that destroy garlic volatiles, heat deactivates them. Meanwhile, juicing allows the enzyme polyphenol oxidase to polymerize most of the phenols, which then get filtered out. Juicing can also cause the phenols to link together, impeding them from binding to a gas released by one of the garlic volatiles, a crucial step in eliminating it, and it filters out the fibers and other large molecules that can physically trap volatiles and prevent their release as stinky gases.
But even if the machine the researchers used detected a drop in volatile concentrations, our brains might not, says Coupland, who wasn’t involved in the study. It would have been interesting to have the subject sit in front of someone else who sniffs their breath and says, “Can I smell a difference between these things?” And while raw mint, apple and lettuce seem to work if eaten right after a garlicky meal, “I certainly wouldn’t wait an hour,” Barringer says. By then, your stomach would have digested the garlic, releasing the volatiles into your bloodstream and lungs, where they can last up to 24 hours.
In fact, pretty much any raw fruit or vegetable — especially dark-colored varieties, which are likely to contain loads of odor-fighting antioxidants — could do the trick, Coupland says. So next time you find yourself scrambling for an Altoid post-dinner date, try munching on the sprig of parsley garnish on your plate. Just don’t get any stuck in your teeth.