Chemistry in the Kitchen


Why do onions make you cry?

Sulfinylpropene is the main tear-inducing compound (technical term: lachrymator) released when you slice onions. The most interesting part of this story is that this chemical is not present in onions before you slice them. In fact, the generation of this tear-inducing molecule is not a mistake, but part of the defense system that plants have developed to deter animals from continuing to eat them. When you cut, or an animal takes a bite of, an onion, an enzyme, alliinase, that is normally safely stored within the plant’s cells is released and starts to wreak havoc. Alliinase converts sulfoxides to sulfinyl groups, which makes you cry like a baby.


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