Why Do Onions Make You Cry?

iStock
iStock

The onion has been traced back as far as the Bronze Age and was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians (and eaten by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt). Onions were rubbed over the muscles of Roman gladiators, used to pay rent in the Middle Ages, and eventually brought to the Americas, where today we fry, caramelize, pickle, grill, and generally enjoy them.

Many of us burst into tears when we cut into one, too. It's the price we pay for onion-y goodness. Here's a play-by-play breakdown of how we go from grabbing a knife to crying like a baby:

1. When you cut into an onion, its ruptured cells release all sorts of goodies, like allinase enzymes and amino acid sulfoxides. The former breaks the latter down into sulfenic acids.

2. The sulfenic acids, unstable bunch that they are, spontaneously rearrange into thiosulfinates, which produce a pungent odor and at one time got the blame for our tears. The acids are also converted by the LF-synthase enzyme into a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide, also known as the lachrymatory factor (or the crying factor).

3. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide moves through the air and reaches our eyes. The first part of the eye it meets, the cornea, is populated by autonomic motor fibers that lead to the lachrymal glands. When syn-propanethial-S-oxide is detected, all the fibers in the cornea start firing and tell the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.

4. Our eyes automatically start blinking and producing tears, which flushes the irritant away. Of course, our reaction to burning eyes is often to rub them, which only makes things worse since our hands also have some syn-propanethial-S-oxide on them.

It only takes about 30 seconds to start crying after you make the first cut; that's the time needed for syn-propanethial-S-oxide formation to peak.

WHY DON'T GREEN ONIONS MAKE US CRY?

The onion's relatives, like green onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, also produce sulfenic acids when cut, but they generally have fewer (or no) LF-synthase enzymes and don't produce syn-propanethial-S-oxide.

HOW DO I AVOID CRYING?

Since I usually go through a good deal of onions while cooking at home, I've been road testing some of the different methods the internet suggests for reducing or avoiding the effects of the lachrymatory factor. Here's what I tried:

Method #1: Chill or slightly freeze the onions before cutting, the idea being that this will change the chemical reactions and reduce the gas that is released.
Result: The onion from the fridge has me crying just as quickly as room temperature ones. The one that was in a freezer for 30 minutes leaves me dry-eyed for a bit, but by the time I'm done dicing my eyes start to burn a little.

Method #2: Cut fast! Get the chopping over with before the gas reaches your eyes.
Result: Just hacking away at the onion, I get in the frying pan without so much as a sting in my eyes. The onion looks awful, though. Doing a proper dice, I take a little too long and start tearing up. If you don't mind a mangled onion, this is the way to go.

Method #3: Put a slice of bread in your mouth, and cut the onion with most of the bread sticking out to "catch" the fumes.
Result: It seems the loaf of bread I have has gone stale. I stop the experiment and put bread on my shopping list.

Method #4: Chew gum while chopping. It keeps you breathing through your mouth, which keeps the fumes away from your eyes.
Result: This seems to work pretty well as long as you hold your head in the right position. Leaning toward the cutting board or looking right down at the onion puts your eyes right in the line of fire again.

Method #5: Cut the onions under running water. This prevents the gas from traveling up into the eyes.
Result: An onion in the sink is a hard onion to cut. I think Confucius said that. My leaky Brita filter is spraying me in the face and I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself, but I'm certainly not crying.

Method #6: Wear goggles.
Result: In an effort to maintain my dignity, I try my eyeglasses and sunglasses first. Neither do me any good. The ol' chemistry lab safety glasses make me look silly, but help a little more. I imagine swim goggles would really do the trick, but I don't have any.

Method #7: Change your onion. "Tear free" onions have been developed in the UK via special breeding and in New Zealand via "gene silencing" techniques.
Result: My nearest grocery store, Whole Foods, doesn't sell genetically modified produce or onions from England. Tonight, we eat leeks!

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Do the Terms on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Mean?

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

There's a reason your parents used to scold you for not turning off a light when you left a room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American household uses up to 5 percent of their total energy expenditure on lighting. Living rooms get flooded with light. Dining rooms and dens are full of lighting accents. Motion lights, hallway lights, bathroom vanity lights, lamps—we like our lives to be nice and bright.

Fortunately, energy-saving lighting sources have largely replaced the conventional incandescent bulbs that once used up a substantial amount of power. Those bulbs heated up a coil, or filament, of tungsten wire that gave off light. Roughly 90 percent of the energy they passed on was in the form of heat, which siphoned off energy and kept utility bills inflated. Today's bulbs brighten without the waste. That's the good news. The bad? The varieties of bulbs can be confusing. If you've ever been lost in the fixtures section of the hardware store, here's a quick primer on what these terms mean.

Halogen Incandescent:

These are incandescent light bulbs that contain a halogen gas-filled capsule around the filament to help increase energy efficiency. While cheaper to operate than a conventional incandescent bulb—they use 25 to 30 percent less energy—they don't produce as much of a cost savings as other options. On the plus side, they reach full brightness immediately. Other choices may take time to warm up.

Compact Florescent Lamp (CFL):

When you see a coiled light bulb, it’s likely to be a CFL, which is simply a downsized version of the tubular florescent lighting seen in commercial spaces. Instead of an electric current traveling through a filament like in an incandescent bulb, the current goes through a tube containing argon and mercury vapor. The resulting ultraviolet light activates phosphor inside the tube, which emits light. It uses one-third of the energy of a halogen incandescent. The downside? They can take a little time to warm up, especially if used outdoors. They also contain mercury, a potential health hazard if the bulb breaks. (See the "mercury" entry below.)

Light Emitting Diode (LED):

This type of bulb uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. In addition to being energy-efficient, they usually last eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs and four to eight times longer than CFLs—perhaps as long as 18 to 46 years. You'll probably pay more up front, but the expense is offset by their durability. Most LEDs are compatible with dimming switches, too. Most CFLs aren't, so if that's important to you, you'll want to stick with LED.

Energy Star:

A bulb with an Energy Star label was evaluated by a third party to make sure its energy-saving claims are accurate, and they'll typically have a longer warranty than bulbs without the endorsement.

But what about the "nutritional label" style information box that appears on light bulb packaging? Let's take a closer look.

An example of a label that appears on energy-efficient light bulb packaging is pictured
Federal Trade Commission

Brightness:

You have probably inferred that brightness refers to the light output given off by a bulb. This is measured in lumens and rounded off to the nearest five. (A bulb will never be 822 lumens. It's 820.) The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. Since you're probably used to shopping by wattage, consider that a bulb with 800 lumens is roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent. A 1100 lumen bulb will resemble a 75-watt bulb.

Estimated Energy Cost:

This is a rough estimate of much it will cost an average household to operate the bulb. What's average? The wattage of the bulb is calculated with three hours of daily operation at a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt. Your actual cost will go up or down whether you use it more or less or pay your energy supplier a different amount.

Life:

This is how long the bulb is expected to last based on the same usage estimated for the energy cost and rounded to the nearest tenth of a year.

Light Appearance:

This refers to the color temperature of the bulb measured in Kelvin, a temperature scale measuring light color. The range is from 2600 K (yellow and warm) to 6600 K (blue and cool). Bright white is about 3500 K. You should probably avoid anything above 3000 K for any interior room.

Energy Used:

This is how much energy the bulb will require and is measured in watts. The lower the wattage, the cheaper it costs to operate. This is where the energy savings materializes, as a 10-watt LED bulb may give off as much light as an old 60-watt incandescent.

Color Rendering Index (CRI):

It's not on all bulb packaging, but if you see it, it refers to how accurate colors will appear under the bulb's light on a scale of 0 to 100. Halogen incandescent bulbs score high. CFLs and LEDs aren't quite as accurate, though they may still get the job done. Try to get a high CRI if you'll be using the bulbs in a bathroom, as skin tone can appear off with lower CRI numbers.

Mercury:

You might see some CFL bulb packaging with a mercury disclosure. This isn't an issue if the bulb remains intact, but if it breaks, it might release potentially hazardous mercury vapor and the introduce the very small possibility of mercury poisoning. Avoid using CFL bulbs in kids' rooms if there's potential for knocking over a lamp or light. Broken bulbs that contain mercury should be cleaned up by following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines—picked up with tape, not vacuumed—and disposed of properly. Old bulbs should be recycled.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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