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How Does Jelly Belly Create Its Weird Flavors?

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If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ve no doubt received a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in your Easter basket at least once. As its name suggests, there are beans of many flavors in the boxes—and not just nice ones. In addition to beans that taste like banana, lemon, and blueberry, there are also black pepper, earwax, booger, earthworm, and vomit jelly beans. Ditto for the company’s BeanBoozled line, which features lookalike jelly beans in flavors like buttered popcorn and rotten egg, licorice and skunk spray, peach and barf, and chocolate pudding and canned dog food. (Part of the fun of taking the BeanBoozled Challenge is finding out which one you’ve gotten!)

Having tasted the vomit jelly bean myself, I can tell you it does, in fact, taste like puke. (I had to spit it out.) “We’re nothing if not committed to making flavors as true to life as possible,” Jelly Belly spokesperson Jana Sanders Perry tells mental_floss, “and that includes the wacky flavors, too.” Still, no one at Jelly Belly is eating canned dog food or vomit to make these beans, or putting that stuff in the beans themselves—and yet, they taste just like what they’re named after. So how is it done?

Smells play a huge part in how we taste, so Jelly Belly’s first step in creating a jelly bean involves analyzing the real thing in a gas chromatograph. The machine converts the target object into vapors in an oven (either after dissolving it in a solvent and then boiling it or simply by heating it), and then analyzes the chemical makeup of those vapors and converts them to flavor markers, which is what Jelly Belly’s team uses as a starting point for its beans. “This is how many of our flavors are analyzed and created, particularly those found in the BeanBoozled and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans lines,” Perry says.

For example, when the company decided to add a new bean called Stinky Socks to its BeanBoozled line, “our flavor scientist aged his own socks in a sealed plastic bag for a couple of weeks,” Perry says. The scientist then took the socks and put them in the gas chromatograph, which generated a report of the socks’ flavor makeup; the bean’s flavor was created using that data. “In the early tests of what became Stinky Socks flavor, the scent permeated everything the scientist wore, even though she was making a very small batch,” Perry says. “Usually you can do some laundry and take a shower and all is well, but [her] leather boots took on the scent and would not let it go. It’s the only time I’ve heard of one of the flavors causing such extreme ruin.” The company’s flavor scientists refined the flavor so it’s less potent.

Once a new jelly bean flavor is created, it goes through taste testing trials to get the flavor just right, and adjustments are made based on that feedback. Occasionally, that input comes from the company’s owners. “A few of them grew up on farms with chickens and have had run-ins with rotten eggs,” Perry says. “When we created the Rotten Egg flavor, it passed through the usual channels for taste testing, and when it got to our Chairman of the Board, Herm Rowland, and his daughter, now-President & CEO Lisa Rowland Brasher, they both had the same feedback: Needs even more rotten egg flavor. Both have strong memories of the smell of a rotten egg [after it] exploded in their hands.”

But sometimes flavors are created in a more roundabout way; it’s not always about putting something like puke in the gas chromatograph. “The Vomit in the Bertie Bott’s and Barf in BeanBoozled lines were born from the humble attempt to make a pizza-flavored jelly bean,” Perry says. “Attempt after attempt was rejected by our taste testers because the cheese flavor of the pizza was not palatable.”

The company shelved the flavor, but when it was time to make a vomit jelly bean, one team member brought up the failed pizza flavor. “We made a few adjustments,” Perry says, “and the rest is history.”

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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

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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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