Friday, June 28, 2013

I Know What You Ate This Summer

Despite active foodstagramming and foodteresting, and eagerness to show pictures of meals and diet reports to friends on social media, we don't really want others to know everything we eat. But they might know anyway.

Why worry about NSA, when Google, Facebook, Amazon and many others know what we might be eating. Cameras record our ways to groceries and restaurants, credit cards record our purchases, food chains know our weaknesses, clothes shops know how, as a result, our pant sizes change over time. One day phones will know what we ate too.  As both short- and long-term diets change our breath-prints - creating signature metabolites in exhaled breath.

A recent Dutch study actually looked at what gluten-free eating does to our breath. Just 4 week of dieting lead to remarkable - though reversible -  differences. (As detected in 20 healthy individuals by gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (TD-GC-tof-MS) in combination with chemometric analysis ). A set of twelve volatile compounds that distinguish gluten-free eaters along with information from Aurametrix knowledgebase is listed in the table below.

Compound Odor Notes
2-butanol strong alcoholic 1-Butanol smells like permanent marker (Sharpie) 
octane Gasoline-like, car exhaust octyl chloride smells faintly of oranges
2-propyl-1 pentanol green banana 1-Pentanol smells like paint thinner 
nonanal strong fruity or floral attracts mosquitoes
dihydro-4-methyl-2(3H)-furanone strong coconut aroma 5-butyl-4-methyloxolan-2-one is known as "whisky lactone"
nonanoic acid rancid beer, old cooking oil armpits of males over 30
dodecanal Soapy, waxy, aldehydic, citrus, orange rindy with floral nuances Pure, synthetic qualities of this fatty aldehyde are used in traces in perfumery for "fresh laundry"-like effects.

Baranska A, Tigchelaar E, Smolinska A, Dallinga JW, Moonen EJ, Dekens JA, Wijmenga C, Zhernakova A, & van Schooten FJ (2013). Profile of volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath changes as a result of gluten-free diet. Journal of breath research, 7 (3) PMID: 23774130

Thursday, June 6, 2013

When it Smells Like Team Spirit

Why do we connect and collaborate, deciding to "walk in the light of creative altruism" instead of the "darkness of destructive selfishness"?

Is it because of subtle behavioral clues that make us "click" and consider the other person a part of the group? Or is it because it smells like team spirit?

It very well might be. We (literally) smell love, victory, fear, along with chemicals that motivate us to cooperate. As was recently shown in double-blind placebo-controlled studies that quantitatively measured generosity and cooperation. Androstadienone, a rather unpleasant smelling molecule abundant in male sweat could make us more cooperative and more likely to think of the other person as "one of us". This molecule, created from male sex hormone testosterone possibly with the help of coryneform bacteria living under arms, was previously shown to have an effect on women - depending on social context and the time in their menstrual cycle. Even though androstadienone does not smell particularly plaasant - rather musky, with subtle urine-like and alcohol notes - merely smelling it is sufficient to maintain high levels of energy-boosting hormone cortisol  - possibly by inhibiting an enzyme (the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 aka 11β-HSD1) responsible for its reactivation from cortisone.

Androstadienone is related to another steroid estratetraenol found in the urine of pregnant women. Both molecules in large concentrations can affect mood -  improving it in females (also increasing their feeling of being focused and sensitivity to pain) while suppressing males. High testosterone males might even get depressed. So it might not be a good idea to sweat too much, but the right amount of sweating is actually helpful. If you are a male. When it comes to men deciding to cooperate with women, chemistry alone is less helpful. As in the old monkey experiment (Michael and Zumpe, 1982) where the best female strategy was to block male's access to other female monkeys. So, don't sweat it ladies. Just be dominant.


Huoviala P, & Rantala MJ (2013). A Putative Human Pheromone, Androstadienone, Increases Cooperation between Men. PloS one, 8 (5) PMID: 23717389

Lundström JN, Hummel T, & Olsson MJ (2003). Individual differences in sensitivity to the odor of 4,16-androstadien-3-one. Chemical senses, 28 (7), 643-50 PMID: 14578126

 Michael RP, Zumpe D.  (1982) Influence of olfactory signals on the reproductive behaviour of social groups of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). J Endocrinol. 95(2):189-205. PMID: 7175415