So apparently there was a “mysterious but harmless” maple syrup smell permeating the Big Apple (insert your own apple pancake joke here), predominantly on the Upper West Side. Public outcry was such that our fearless leader, Chairman Bloomberg, held a press conference to unveil the source of said olfactory anomaly.
I’m a South Brooklyn hermit, so I missed it in real time. Thanks be to gourds for Brian Lehrer (and his all-hail-the-power-of-the-people attitude) for bringing this important biznit to our attention and for inviting us, the listeners, to contribute to Nancy Drew and The Case of the Missing Maple Syrup. Among our amateur sleuthing hypotheses, many more of which are available here: “New life forms evolving in the Gowanus Canal,” “Mrs. Butterworth is having a hot flash,” “Sadly, it was the sweet smell of success wafting up from Wall Street, but alas with the staggering fall of the market it has been replaced with the foul fumes of failure (awkward alliteration, but tried!),” and “Sap brewing in Times Square and environs, engendered by the proliferation of sickeningly sweet Disney musicals.” Gee, I wonder what sort of pompous ass musical snotrag could have come up with that last one. Hmmmm.
Self-described “scent nerd” Ed Shepp of NYC offered this, the sole correct answer:
“I’m betting it’s a spill of maple furanone (and it has other names, like 5-ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-methyl-5H-furan-2-one). It could have come from a perfumery or a food-processing plant. It’s a smell that is ridiculously strong, and I think smells like curry full-strength but like maple or caramel diluted down to below 1%. It’s either maple furanone or caramel furanone.
“That’s my guess.”
And…whaddya know? Turns out the maple syrup odor was caused by, yup, a food processing plant in Hudson County, NJ “that has processed foenugreek [sic] seeds to produce flavors and fragrances that resulted in esters being formed in the air. According to Merriam-Webster, a foenugreek seed is ‘a leguminous annual Asian herb (Trigonella foenumgraecum) with aromatic seeds used in making curry, imitation vanilla flavoring, and some veterinary medicines.’” When asked on air the next day why he didn’t share his thoughts with the mayor’s office, Shepp replied he had no idea the mayor’s office was investigating the source of the smell. But…but…fenugreek is people, Ed! Gah.
Actually, fenugreek has quite the medicinal properties, according to Wikipedia. Nursing mothers may take it in capsule form to stimulate milk production, and fenugreek supplements are reported to lower cholesterol and lessen symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. So, much ado about nothing, although according to Dan Blumberg at the WNYC News Blog, “the city investigated because you can never be too sure.”