Sensing a Change
Don't let a diminished sense of smell cause life to lose its flavor.
Imagine the heavenly scent of morning coffee, the delightful tang of fruit on a summer’s day or the bittersweet comfort of hot tea. Unfortunately, these simple pleasures are not so simple for everyone: Roughly two million people in the US suffer from disorders of taste and smell.
The loss of smell and taste can be a serious health matter; these senses protect against food poisoning and warn of dangers like fire and gas leaks. Diminished senses can also adversely affect food choices, especially in the elderly, leading to weight loss, malnutrition and weakened immunity. Who is susceptible to such a tasteless fate, and what can you do to make “sense” of it all?
The Flavor Factor
There are five basic tastes that are sensed by our taste buds: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and savory. (The last one, also known as umami, has only recently been acknowledged in the West; it is often found in fermented foods such as soy sauce and miso.) But don’t confuse taste with flavor. If you hold your nose while eating an apple, for example, you will have trouble identifying the apple flavor, even though you can distinguish (taste) its sweetness. That’s because the familiar flavor of the food is sensed largely by the odor. In fact, 70% to 75% of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell.
Every mouthful of food releases odor molecules that travel through the passage between the nose and mouth to smell receptors at the top of your nasal cavity, behind the bridge of the nose. It’s these odor molecules that give most of the taste sensation, and this sensory experience, along with the food’s texture, temperature and spiciness, come together to form its distinctive “flavor.”
People with flavor disturbances often mistake the problem as a loss of taste, when in fact the real trouble lies with their sense of smell. So if your favorite eating pleasures have lost their usual zest, it could be your sniffer, not your taster, that’s to blame. And keep in mind that as we get older our sense of smell, like vision and hearing, becomes less accurate.
The Taste of Time
“Gradual reduction, or loss, of taste and smell appears to be an unfortunate but normal part of aging,” says Susan Schiffman, PhD, director of the Duke University Taste and Smell Lab. “Losses in the sense of smell are more common than losses in the sense of taste, and these impairments can result from normal aging, certain disease states (especially Alzheimer’s), medications, surgery and environmental exposure.”
Even if you're not nearing your golden years your ability to smell can be affected by such conditions as colds, the flu or sinus problems. If nasal passages are blocked, odor molecules can’t reach the smell receptors, leaving you sense (and taste) less.
Radiation therapy for cancer can damage or destroy smell receptors, causing problems that last for months, and in some cases, forever. However, the most common cause of permanent sense loss is a head injury, as frequently occurs in a car accident; fibers that connect the smell receptors to the brain are severely damaged or destroyed.
Some medicines (like antibiotics and blood pressure pills) can affect your ability to smell and taste along with cigarette smoking, inflammation and Bell’s palsy. And in some cases, a deficiency of zinc, vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-3 (niacin) may be the culprit.
Make sure you’re getting at least the recommended daily value (DV) for niacin (20 mg) and zinc (15 mg). The DV for B-12 is 6 micrograms (mcg), but some experts suggest getting 25 mcg if you’re over 50. If you take acid blockers you may need to take much higher amounts (250 to 500 mcg; consult your health practitioner). A supplement called phosphatidylcholine (PC) is in early-stage research as a possible solution for smell and taste disorders. It has been shown to support the liver and may play a role in proper brain function.
If your sensory loss is permanent you must improve your food’s appeal. Schiffman says, “For many people with taste or smell dysfunctions, life has lost its gusto, but food enhancers can help ‘nontasters’ comply with dietary restrictions and at the same time enjoy food again.” Try the following tips to help maintain a well-balanced diet:
• Experiment with various flavors, such as fresh herbs and spices. Combine foods of different textures.
• Use less liquid in soups and sauces to increase flavor intensity. Marinate meats and fish for stronger flavor.
• Combine cold and hot temperatures in the same dish, and banish blandness with spicy foods.
• Increase eye appeal with such garnishes as parsley or sliced oranges.