If you have eaten curry, you have probably tasted fenugreek. The seeds of this plant as well as its fresh leaves are commonly used as ingredients in curries. They are added for taste but they also impart a smell that is due to sotalone, a compound that at low concentrations has a distinct maple syrup-like odour. Since sotalone passes through the body unchanged, it can impart a scent both to the urine and sweat. The compound is actually used as one of the flavor components in artificial maple syrup and can be isolated from fenugreek seeds. Facilities that process the seeds often smell strongly of maple syrup and the scent can be carried quite some ways by the wind. Back in 2005 Manhattanites began to complain of a strong maple syrup odour and rumours circulated about it being some sort of chemical warfare. It took a while but eventually the smell was traced to a company in New Jersey that was processing fenugreek seeds. That rumor even made it on to an episode of 30 Rock, the popular sit com.
It is not only curry eaters who can smell of maple syrup. It can be an issue for lactating mothers who take fenugreek supplements to increase milk production. While there is much anecdotal evidence that this works, the few studies that have been carried out have shown mixed results. There is always a question of just how much to take, which is tough to answer because herbal supplements are difficult to standardize and often there is a mismatch between what is indicated on the label and what is actually in the product.
Herbal remedies are drugs and like any drug can have side effects. As a food fenugreek rarely causes problems but as a supplement it can result in loose stools and intestinal discomfort. Allergy to fenugreek is possible especially in people who have allergies to peanuts and chickpeas which are in the same botanical family. Since fenugreek can lower blood glucose, it can in some cases cause hypoglycemia. This is of special concern in diabetics because fenugreek may enhance the effect of antidiabetic drugs. On the other hand, because it can lower blood glucose, fenugreek may be of some benefit to diabetics, but again there is the problem of knowing how much to take because of lack of standardization.
Since fenugreek can cause uterine contractions, it should not be taken during pregnancy.When taken for lactation, the advice that is often offered is to slowly increase the dosage until the sweat or urine begins to smell like maple syrup. Breast fed babies may also smell of maple syrup if the mom has been ingesting fenugreek and that can lead to false diagnosis of “maple syrup urine disease.” This is a serious genetic disorder characterized by a deficiency in enzymes that metabolize the common amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. A buildup of these amino acids and their breakdown products can lead to severe neurological damage and eventually death. One of these breakdown products is sotalone, the odour of which was usually a clue to the diagnosis of maple syrup odour disease. Today, should the condition be suspected based on a baby’s failure to thrive, testing of the blood amino acids can detect the condition even before any scent appears. Serious consequences can then be avoided by adhering to a diet that is based on a special formula free of the problematic amino acids.
Some women take “Blessed Thistle” along with fenugreek because this herb also has a reputation as a lactating agent. In this case there is insufficient evidence for efficacy or about the safety of taking this herb during pregnancy or while breast feeding. Blessed thistle is not the same as “milk thistle” which in spite of its name has nothing to do with encouraging milk production. The plant derives its name from the characteristic white streaks on its leaves. An extract of milk thistle, often called “silymarin” is composed of several compounds that have a protective effect on the liver. Some strudies have shown a benefit in cirrhosis as well as fatty liver disease. One study even claimed effective treatment of poisoning caused by Amanita phalloides, one of the most deadly mushrooms known. It contains compounds that attack the liver.