I didn’t know what to expect because the digestive journey has never really been of interest to me. But, wow, did I learn a lot – like, how rats have a sweet tooth, hospitals have an “ass box,” and what the slang “prison wallet” actually means.

Here are some of my highlights:

  • In 1926, the Indian Research Fund Association compared rats who lived on chapatis and vegetables with rats fed a Western diet of tinned meat, white bread, jam, and tea. So repellent was the Western fare that the latter group preferred to eat their cage mates, three of them so completely that “little or nothing remained for post-mortem examination.”
  • A candy called Lychee Mini Fruity Gels has killed enough times for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to have banned its import. Every now and then a food comes along that is so difficult to orally process that even healthy adults without dysphagia have trouble getting it down. Sticky rice mochi, a traditional Japanese New Years food, kills about a dozen people every year—along with puffer fish and flaming cheese, the world’s riskiest menu items.
  • Crispness and crunch appeal to us because they signal freshness. Old, rotting, mushy produce can make you ill. At the very least, it has lost much of its nutritional vim. So it makes sense that humans evolved a preference for crisp and crunchy foods.”
  • Interestingly, the Vatican proposed a similar experiment in the 1600s. The Church sought an answer to the nagging question “Does rectal consumption of beef broth break one’s Lenten fast?”
  • Richard Henry Barnes was the dean of the Graduate School of Nutrition at Cornell University from 1956 to 1973, the president of the American Institute of Nutrition, and the first academic to formally address the consumption of shit.
  • Like cervical cancer, anal cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus; people get it via sex with an infected person, and that seems like something they ought to know when making decisions about using a condom.
“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.

First published January 4, 2013

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