Company that “won” spoof science prize two years ago for discovering what makes us cry when we chop up staple vegetable has pioneered one that won’t bring tears to the eyes.
Onions are a building block of so many dishes—stocks, soups, stir-fries—not to mention vital as a burger topping. The downsides to onions, though, are well-documented: Namely, they make you cry and turn your breath into something dangerous.
The sobbing of a chef as she chops onions in the kitchen could be a thing of the past thanks to one Japanese company, which says it has produced a tear-free vegetable.
Scientists say they have managed to disable the production of a powerful substance an onion releases as the knife slices into it, cutting down on the pungent fumes that bring tears to the eyes.
House Foods Group said in a press release that its scientists bombarded the brown bulb with irradiating ions in a process that drastically reduces the level of a certain enzyme that is key to this process.
Apparently, scientists had assumed for many years that the chemical Propanethial-s-oxide was responsible for the tears, explained Scicurious, a postdoc in biomedical research.
“Scientists knew that an enzyme called alliinase breaks down the chemical PRENCSO to pyruvic acid. They thought that it just spontaneously went from there to the tear-jerking Propanethial-s-oxide.”
Interestingly, garlic also contains alliinase. But this equally strong condiment doesn’t make people cry when they cut it. Hence, the Japanese team suspected something else was at play, continued Scicurious.
“They added alliinase specifically to PRENCSO… and got NO Propanethial-s-oxide. So the alliinase alone is not responsible for the breakdown. There’s another, missing enzyme.”
The team figured out how to neutralize the onion’s odor by halting the production of this enzyme, which is released when the onion is cut. The team managed to do so by zapping it with irradiating ions. By disabling the reactive properties of this enzyme, the scientists have successfully retarded a chemical reaction that both causes tears and produces thiosulfinate — a substance responsible for the onion’s signature strong smell.
A spokesman said no decision had yet been made on whether they would commercialize their tear-free onions.
The company’s researchers won the Ig Nobel Prize – an award handed out to honor achievements organizers consider unintentionally funny – in 2013 for their discovery of the biochemical process behind how onions make people blubber.
The new ‘sweet red’ onion has ‘lower pungency levels’ than your average onion which means fewer tears will be shed over the chopping board and you won’t have to chew an entire pack of Wrigley’s after each meal.
The fancy new bulb is also apparently milder, juicier and crunchier than a standard red onion.
House Foods has not yet made plans to release their new onions commercially. Until they do, Block has some other tips to help you enjoy actually cooking the vegetable: cool it down before cutting it (which reduces its volatility), use a kitchen hood to pull the fumes out or chop it under water so that the compounds are not released into the air. Try it out, and hopefully the only thing watering will be your mouth.