“Yum, garlic! Kimberry Wood/Diane Labombarbe/Doodle Machine/Getty Images
Anyone who’s ever enjoyed slow-roasted garlic spread over bruschetta or a hunk of garlic bread knows that the pleasure lasts beyond the actual meal. Way beyond. Sometimes it seems as though a garlicky meal doesn’t just linger in your thoughts; it takes up residence in your pores.
And you’re not far off. Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which gives the bulb its distinctive smell. Allicin, however, is only released when garlic is cut, crushed or otherwise disturbed. (Hence why whole heads of garlic don’t stink up the entire produce section.) But allicin is a crazy compound; it acts a bit like water, thanks to a key oxygen atom, and a bit like oil, with its hydrocarbon tails. Which means that it can penetrate our skin in a way that neither can alone.
Now the folks at the American Chemical Society gave us a little party trick to try, as a way of explaining why garlic can be so all-powerful.
Crush or cut half a clove or more of garlic, and then go to a separate (non-garlic-smelling) room. Put your bare feet into a plastic bag, with the garlic. Tie up the bag to contain the smell. Now hang out for an hour.
You’ll no doubt start daydreaming of Italian food soon enough because you will start to taste — and smell — the garlic. Not because it’s coming out of the bag: Your soles and toes have allowed that slippery allicin to enter the bloodstream, and you’re actually tasting and smelling the garlic through your feet. Bon appetit!
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Why does the garlic have to be crushed or cut to release the allicin? Whole garlic actually contains alliinase, an enzyme that acts on a chemical called alliin to convert to allicin. Disrupting the tissue causes the reaction.