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Why Onions Make You Cry

If you need a good cry, but there is nothing in your life making you sad enough to shed tears, consider yourself lucky.

Get Some Onions

Then go to your pantry and get some onions.  The onion is an allium and it will certainly bring forth the tears.  Why?  Well, it’s a simple matter of self-preservation.  Imagine the amazing world underground.  Voles, moles, and others dig tunnels and little homes there, and they are constantly in search of food.  We plant bulbs of all sorts; they rub their furry little paws together and head out to eat.  If you’ve ever had a garden, you already know this. 

An Onion Spied, An Onion Gnawed

When these underground denizens spy an onion (perhaps they feel rather than spy them?) the temptation is too great to resist.  Those little front teeth are bared, and they go to work, gnawing at the bulb.  That bulb?  It doesn’t want to become a victim and it doesn’t have to, because it’s equipped with nature’s version of mustard gas.   The minute its skin is broken, the onion emits enzymes and sulfenic acid which combine to produce a compound called syn-propanethial S-oxide.  Like a corny melody, this gets the tears flowing.

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Clever Process

The process is amazingly clever – the compound comes in contact with the cornea, which sends a message to the nervous system, which reacts with tears.  It can happen when you cut into shallots, too, and sometimes even scallions. 

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Avoidance Tactics

How to avoid it? There are a million suggestions, none of them very practical. Perhaps the most effective is to wear swim-type goggles in the kitchen if you can stand the shame.  Some say to cut onions under water, but if you do that, you’re risking your fingers, your slices won’t be neat and tidy, and it simply makes no sense.  You can always use the very thin blade on a food processor if you’re making, say, a pizza covered in onions.  Other than that, the only thing you can do is settle into the matter, slice and cry away, wipe your eyes and start again.

Yummy Oxides

That oxide, though, is part of the bouquet of flavors contained within an onion, so even while your tears are flowing, be thankful because what makes you cry also makes your onion-filled dishes taste wonderful!

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