Or I don’t think anyone’s dead yet. I haven’t actually checked. Two weeks ago, 11 daring durian lovers met me at the Ministry of Durian, a shop in Singapore, to combine ungodly amounts of durian with beer in an attempt to put science to the widespread myth that combining durian and alcohol will kill you, or at least have some pretty serious side effects.
We brought blood pressure cuffs and ear thermometers, and tracked our body stats throughout the 2-hour gluttonous process.
If you’re wondering why on earth anyone would agree to do this (besides the cheap price for a durian buffet), I gave a pretty in-depth explanation in a previous post.
It basically comes down to two beliefs:
1) Eating durian makes you feel hot because it temporarily raises your temperature and/or blood pressure
2) This change in blood pressure can cause people to have heart attacks, especially if combined with alcohol consumption.
Since no one has ever proven with a study that durian does either of these things, I thought it was worth looking into. I had no hopes of this “study” being of the scientific journal calibre, but I did hope to create enough controls that our results, whatever they were, might inspire the scientific community to look into this issue further.
Maybe that happened.
The Day of the “Heatiness Experiment”
I arrived early at Melvin’s new durian shop on Paya Lebar Road, ready to set up for the Durian Experiment. I chose the Ministry of Durian because it’s one of only two durian shops (that I know of) that are air-conditioned. I didn’t want Singapore’s heat skewing people’s perceptions of how hot they were. Plus, I’d met Melvin the year before and thought he was pretty cool.
The first mistake was choosing a Sunday afternoon. The shop was packed to the max. A long queue curled around the corner, and Melvin was elbows deep in a thorny pile with sweat trembling around his ears. His greeting sounded slightly out of breath.
I headed inside to set up our tables with the medical health surveys, the thermometers and blood pressure cuffs, and the sheets for keeping track of everyone’s stats. Melvin appeared at the doorway and pointed me to three tables clumped together along the wall for my group, and then was swallowed again by the durian-demanding crowd.
The tables were piled high with fruit shells, and as I began to clear them and wipe off the sticky stuff more customers flowed around me and settled at the tables. When I politely told them I had reserved the tables, they refused to move. I asked for help from Melvin’s staff, who spoke to the intruders in Chinese, but still they didn’t move.
When my “study participants” arrived, we didn’t have anywhere to sit. It took about an hour after I arrived before everyone was seated, but the tables were awkwardly split across the aisle and the room was loud, making it impossible for me to talk to the group all at one time.
It was about this time I realized that Melvin hadn’t started preparing our 500-gram packs of durian yet. I had asked Melvin to prepare these ahead of time, but he was still chopping at rapid fire pace for the infinite queue of customers. It was important to me that the durian was measured, so I could actually track and compare how much durian participants were eating.
One of his staff started packing them, so I took a few boxes and returned to the group. But when I went back to get more, he had stopped and was packing for another customer. This happened two more times, and by then I was getting frustrated. We needed to start before people started leaving.
Not knowing what to do, I grabbed a knife and started opening durians too. I wasn’t sure if this was a-okay with Melvin, and I didn’t really want to make a scene (a white girl opening durian anywhere tends to be somewhat noticeable), but I really needed to get those packs made so my group could start eating at the same time and I could time it.
That didn’t happen either. So much time elapsed between when I brought the initial load of durian packs and when I had the rest ready to go that a few people couldn’t resist anymore and dug in.
What can I say? Melvin serves delicious delicious D.
As a “control” I’d requested that we eat only one durian variety, so we all ate Johor Red Prawn.
Which ended up being the saving grace. My packet was so good my tongue tingled a bit. I couldn’t believe it — numbing durian in Singapore. Not all the pieces were that good, but in general the quality was exceptional.
“Oh hell,” I thought as I reflected on the day. “At least the Red Prawn was good.”
Then I took a big breath and tried to make some sense of the data.
As usual, we had a really great diversity of durian munchers. The photo above was taken after some people had to leave, so it doesn’t show the whole group.
8 men and 3 women participated, ranging in age from 26 to over 50 years. Five people said they usually feel heaty after eating durian. One person had trouble with low blood pressure. One person had trouble with high blood pressure.
And because I know you vegans are gonna ask, there were 4 vegetarians and 7 non-vegetarians.
I’ve got the full data spreadsheet here, but essentially here’s what happened.
How Much Durian We Ate
When I first planned the “experiment” I thought we’d all just eat one 500 gram pack of durian, but then I realized that was totally unrealistic.
Who eats just one pack?
So I decided to change it to eat-all-you-want, but counting the number of 500-gram packs people ate.
Each pack ranged between 460 grams and 600 grams (average 530 grams), and when I weighed the seeds after, each pack had between 0.140 and 0.180 grams of seeds (average 160 grams). So on average, each pack contained 370 grams of solid durian flesh.
One person ate only 1/2 pack of durian, but most people ate at least two packs, for about 740 grams of durian flesh.
Durian flesh is about 150 calories per 100 grams, so most people ate 1,110 calories of durian.
Three people ate four packs for 1480 grams of flesh, or 2,220 calories.
Only five people drank beer, but we’ll be paying special attention to them, especially participants A, B, and E, who ate 2,220 calories of durian AND beer.
We took our temperatures using two children’s ear-thermometers (with sanitary caps) I bought at the pharmacy that morning. We had a little bit of trouble getting them to work, which is something to keep in mind.
Everyone had a temperature between 36° and 37°C (96.8 – 98.6) when we started. Thanks to the delays, we’d been sitting in the shop for about an hour before anyone started eating, so they’d probably had time to cool off after the heat of their journey to the Ministry of Durian.
|Participant||Starting Temp||Finished Eating Temp|
If I plot all the points, it looks like chaotic meaninglessness.
It’s in part because some people had to leave early, others stayed late (the 40 minuters), and some people just forgot to take their temperature at different points. I wasn’t on top of it, between the tables being separated and being busy trying to supply enough durian. Because of this, I also plotted the null points (skipped or forgotten measurements).
If I find the mean average of everyone’s temps, it looks a bit more like my hypothesis:
But still, any changes were less than 0.5 of a degree. That’s pretty darn insignificant. I think. I don’t really know.
Here’s the what the temperatures looked like of those who drank beer with their durian.
Weirdly, three of the beer-drinkers saw their temperatures go down, and kind of dramatically. A and B, who ate the 4 packs of durian, dropped in temperature a lot, when I would have thought that they of all people would be feeling “heaty.”
But there’s no consistency — E, who also ate 4 packs of durian and 1 beer, ended a bit warmer.
How did the veg people fare?
A lot of vegans say they don’t experience heatiness, and attribute that to their diet. There were four vegetarians/vegan in the group, so I thought I’d see what happened with them.
Remember that B and E are vegetarians who also drank beer. I don’t see any correlations. Do you?
In fact, if there were any changes in temperature caused by eating durian, they were either really small or we just f*dged up so much they weren’t apparent.
But what happened with blood pressure, the theorized cause of death among those with borderline health issues?
Measuring people’s blood pressure turned out to be easier than the temperatures, but harder to plot and understand. As I tried to make sense of the data, I realized that if you want to dive into the mechanisms of what is happening, blood pressure is a pretty complicated measurement.
Since we basically took our measurements the same way my Grandma takes hers every morning before breakfast, we’ll analyze the results with the same depth of understanding. Did anything go up or down? (Remember, all the data points are in the spreadsheet).
For the Beer Drinkers it looks more like what I’d expect. Both systolic and diastolic readings went up while they were eating, peaking when they had finished, and then going down by 15 minutes later. Weirdly, by 30 minutes after they’d finished eating it looks like their temperatures actually dropped below where they started.
My best theory is that their hearts were pounding with anticipation while waiting to start eating durian, and relaxed with satisfaction after.
Vegetarians didn’t really see any changes at all, even though half of them drank beer. Cuz we be that healthy, right? Or the two non-vegetarian meat eaters just really skewed the above results.
The most interesting to me is how things can go so right and so frustrating at the same time. If I have a conclusion, it’s that success or failure are a mindset.
A friend suggested I not post these results, based on how the day went. “You’re going to have internet people pissing on you,” she said.
The purpose of this experiment wasn’t to make final declarations on the issue of durian+alcohol=death, but just to dip our toes into the science arena and see if there’s anything there worth exploring. I think there is.
When I plotted the data, I did see some trends and unexpected things. For example, a number of people saw their blood pressure go down as they ate. This surprised all of us. I’d love to repeat this study-party again with someone who has more experience in sciencey-things.
I’m actually thinking about repeating this experiment (sans alcohol) at the 2017 Bao Sheng Durian Festival, just for kicks.
Taking readings of blood pressure and temperature as you eat mass quantities of delicious D turned out to be a great party game. I think we all had fun, even me, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of those durian revelers again in the future.
I want to point out that I’m not upset with Melvin. He apologized later, and said he didn’t expect so many people. We’d scheduled our event during what is normally a lull in his day, but instead we arrived during a freak peak. As we took our final measurements, the crowds dissipated. There were suddenly excess tables. Melvin’s knife-wielding arm slowed from a blur to a normal speed.
If there’s one thing I can conclude about durian, is that it defies expectation. Like mouth-numbing Red Prawn in Singapore. That alone was a great discovery.