Review: Gulp by Mary Roach

Nothing says “SCIENCE IS AWESOME” like Mary Roach books! (Okay, this is only my first one, but I have faith that her humor and enthusiasm is consistent in all her books!) In Gulp, Roach tackles the really somewhat gross transit of food through the body. Human physiology (and non-human physiology) is infinitely more fun when you get to see what scientists actually have to do to discover the facts that show up in your textbooks.


“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour of our insides. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions inspired by our insides 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 names 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? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks — or has the courage — to ask. And we go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a bacteria transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.


Gulp is one of my very first Friday Finds on Paper Breathers. This book falls squarely into my non-fiction preferences, so I was pretty sure that I’d like it. I’ve also heard great things about Mary Roach’s writing style, and I wasn’t disappointed: she uses colloquial language to describe experiments and highlight interviews with researchers, and even more informal language in her footnotes, where she makes note of random interesting facts. So really, the book felt like an intellectually stimulating dinner conversation with a knowledgeable friend, who decided to casually talk about poop and saliva and gross bodily functions at the dinner table. I’m grossed out but super fascinated.

I think part of the brilliance of Mary Roach books is that she tackles the most taboo topics of physiology and biology, but also shows why they are necessary and the science and scientists involved in the topics. For example, she talks about historical (and current) research involving opening up a hole in an animal’s stomach so that you can observe how food is digested. The animal – maybe a cow – is still alive and breathing and perfectly happy munching away on its food. It doesn’t make for a pleasant image, but we are introduced to the scientists who take care of these animals, and we get a sense of why this research is worth doing.

Some of the most delightful (and maybe a bit gross) facts presented by Roach include the following:

  • We find our own saliva gross when it’s out of our body and in a vial, even though we’re okay with it when it’s still in our mouth. Something to do with the ickiness of body fluids.
  • Staler chips are quieter, and therefore physically (as in physics) less appealing because it reminds us of less healthy food, like mushy/rotting fruit.
  • Penguins’ stomachs are kind of like coolers because they can shut down digestion to store fish for their young. 🐧
  • Poop can be super useful because of the bacteria in it – a recent NY Times article touches on the applications of fecal microbiota transplant, which is something also discussed in Gulp.
  • Prisoners can rectally smuggle unbelievably large things (like cell phones). (A side note: rectum is a Google image-friendly term. Anus is not.)
  • Legends of fire-breathing serpents/dragons may stem from the early man hunting decomposing snakes, which exhale hydrogen, which is flammable.
  • Competitive eaters are physiologically different from us normal folks. (Hamsters are physiologically different from us normal folks too.)


I actually picked up Gulp because I was taking a physiology class and thought I could “study” in my free time by reading it. I ended up enjoying this book so much more than the class, but I think it supplemented my learning very nicely. My first Mary Roach book will not be my last – her humor and her persistence for thorough research make me want to read more!

Have you read any Mary Roach books?
Have you thought about how you eat?


4 thoughts on “Review: Gulp by Mary Roach

    Um, anyways.
    This does sound gross and fascinating, just as you said. I’ve probably thought about some of these things, but only in passing. (No pun intended.) I like the idea of science being mixed with humor.
    That gif is quite captivating, by the way.

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