David DiSalvo , CONTRIBUTOR Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Men and women generally agree, garlic on the breath isn’t pleasant. But according to a new study, men who eat garlic actually smell more pleasant and attractive to the opposite sex—not their breath, but their body odor. And if that finding isn’t counter-intuitive enough, it’s made all the stranger by the fact that only men in the study who consumed a lot of garlic—the equivalent of four bulbs a day—enjoyed the effect.
The study had three phases in which the amount and type (bulbs or capsules) of garlic given to 42 male participants were varied. The researchers collected their body odor with pads worn for 12 hours, which were subsequently sniffed by 82 women who rated their pleasantness, attractiveness and intensity.
In the first phase, the men ate 6 grams of garlic (about two cloves worth) with bread and cheese. The women who sniffed their pads didn’t rate their odor any differently than they rated the odor of men who ate only bread and cheese. In the next phase researchers doubled the amount to 12 grams, or four cloves. In this case the women judged the odor as significantly more pleasant, attractive and less intense than the non-garlic odor. In the final phase the men consumed 12 grams in capsules and the women again rated their odor as more attractive and less intense.
The results suggest that something about garlic in body odor is attractive to the opposite sex, but what and why? While the study doesn’t provide solid answers, the researchers speculate that the health-boosting benefits of eating garlic may be discernable in body odor, producing an olfactory marker of good health for the opposite sex to home in on.
According to study co-author Craig Roberts, Professor of Psychology at the University of Stirling, UK, “From an evolutionary perspective, formation of preferences for diet-associated body odors was possibly shaped by means of sexual selection. Previous research indicates that many animal species use diet-associated cues to select mates in good physical condition.”
Again, this is speculative, but there’s decent evidence linking garlic to a few notable health boosts, and it’s conceivable that one or more of them could be identifiable in human sweat.
Roberts adds, “As the health benefits of garlic consumption include antioxidant, immunostimulant, cardiovascular, bactericidal and anti-cancer effects, it is plausible that human odor preferences have been shaped by sexual selection.”
Or it’s possible that once garlic is digested, it simply produces a chemical reaction evidenced in male sweat that is, for whatever reason, appealing to women. At least some women.
Either way, the results are intriguing and eating more garlic from a health standpoint isn’t a bad idea, side benefits notwithstanding.
The study will be published in the journal Appetite.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website daviddisalvo.org.