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How to better enjoy food when you have a compromised sense of smell

  • vil May 17, 2014 01:54 PM
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It is definitely awful when you find yourself suddenly losing your sense of smell, in a bad round of the cold or an accident. Most recover quickly but unfortunately some do not. As a Chowhound, what is one to do? I offered to write this up in a recent discussion, some suggestions.

1. Play on the contrast in textures instead. For example, simple things like topping food with crunchy, flaky sea salt, or a dollop of melt-in-your-mouth butter (or both). Add bubbly soda water into your juice or favourite drink, to add one more dimension to it that you can enjoy. I learned (and does anyone else know) that the one of the creators of Ben and Jerry's ice-cream is anosmic, and his idea of overloading on different ingredients in the ice-cream comes from wanting to compensate for the lack of the ability to smell.

2. According to this book (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0061915319/r...), they did a study that shows that individuals claim to taste more of the food when a hot spice was added to it, even when at a level that they could barely detect. Experiment with all kinds of hot spice and condiment, to see what works for you.
3. Heating or warming the food may help you taste more of it.
4. Use colours and other attractive visuals to help stimulate your appetite.
5. Also, it is time to take time to really sit down, look at and appreciate the food to get more out of it.
6. Use the sour component (lemon, vinegar etc.) to accentuate taste. Better yet, add contrast with the basic taste components that you can still detect (salty, sweet, sour, bitter etc.). You can either include them in one dish, as different components with your meal.
7. Just like how the wine tasters taste wine, inhaling deliberately to get more air into the retronasal passages (airways connecting the nose to the mouth) while eating may help with tasting more.
8. Also a good excuse to get better quality meat and other food ingredients, that have more taste and aroma. Umami (natural or MSG) also helps.
9. Also, you may find the same salted dish tasting much more salty and likewise with sweet. This is because you cannot detect the other nuances that make up the "flavour" of the food, and I suppose you get more easily overwhelmed by the single taste. So it might be time to adjust seasoning accordingly.
10. Read Chowhound for new food ideas to try :-

)

Some of this was from the above book, a good read about a chef who had temporarily lost her sense of smell. Any more ideas?

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  1. First of all - it's an inconvenience, little more. Most people get better with time. I worked with someone who permanently lost the ability to smell (and therefore most of his taste sensation) via nerve damage. He simply ate balanced meals, and joked that at least he never had to eat anything that tasted bad.

    Hence my disagreement with point #8. If you can't taste anything, why throw money away on expensive ingredients? Eat the string beans, not the asparagus. And if you are trying to lose weight, inability to appreciate the taste of food is advantageous.

    5 Replies
    1. re: greygarious

      It's far more than an inconvenience, certainly. Without the ability to smell, the sense of taste becomes limited to salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami, but chocolate, steak, wine, cheese, freshly baked bread - all become just something to chew and swallow, without joy. Cooking at the level Chowhounds (never mind professional chefs) are accustomed to without being able to taste as you go? More than a challenge.

      With the loss of one of our five senses, we lose much more than the flavors of food. The smell of flowers, rain, rotting leaves in the Fall, pine forests, woodsmoke, the invigorating smell of the ocean, all gone. Life memories triggered by smell, gone.

      Some of the 2 to 5 million Americans who live with anosmia experience a range of effects that go far beyond food. Loss of smell-based memories has been known to cause depression. And what about a new mother who can never experience the sweet smell of her newborn?

      Many men with the condition experience libido problems, possibly connected to inability to pick up on pheromones. No doubt some women have the same issues, and for the same reasons.

      There are also the safety and hygiene issues. Gas leaks, smoke, spoiled food, body odor - the nose knows and gives us early warning.

      Some anosmics, not most, have their sense of smell restored; for many others, especially older adults, it does not return and there are no treatments for causes not involving polyps or tumors. For those lucky ones who do get their sense of smell back, it may take months, in some cases, years.

      I wouldn't wish a permanent loss of smell on anyone. (Edited) For those who experience only a temporary loss, "inconvenience" might apply.

      1. re: mcsheridan

        Thank you, very well written. I could not have said it better, at least without bring a tear or two to my eyes.

        Also, I understand that for many, the issue of being overweight is a looming issue and so if one simply added 1 and 1 together, being anosmic might seem like a "welcome" aid to weight loss. But how about those who are struggling to keep their BMI to above 18 while unable to smell? The sufferer can feeling the stomach growling loud yet still have absolutely no desire to eat. That is definitely more sinister than simply having an inconvenience.

        1. re: vil

          Thank you for your kind words.

          I've been doing a fair amount of research on this since my eldest sister lost her sense of smell over a year ago. Even before that, I'd read a couple of accounts by food industry pros who had temporarily suffered from this loss. I thought it was beyond rare and always temporary. Boy, was I wrong.

      2. re: greygarious

        And sorry, grey, but it's MUCH more than an inconvenience….It really takes control of your life, since food is such a huge part of it. Imagine holding a bottle of white truffle oil up to your nose…and smelling water. That is what it's like. It takes so much enjoyment out of something most people take for granted. It messes with your head and depresses the shit out of you. Once I finaly had sinus surgery I was even happy to smell my dogs farts! Seriously!

        1. re: schrutefarms

          Agree about seriously feeling overjoyed to smell BO, lol!

          It has been depressing when any wine (your favourite ones, the expensive ones etc.) tastes like rubbing alcohol.

      3. Having suffered anosmia for more than a year, I agree with some of your points, but not all.

        I do agree that varying textures, something crunchy in particular, helps make the food more interesting if you can’t taste anything other that what is discernible from your tongue alone. As mcsheridan points out above, those tastes are salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. So yes, the addition of any of those flavors will allow you to taste at least something. Hot sauces often contain a number of those components, so they, too, are discernible. Warming or heating food never had any effect on my ability to taste it; made no difference to me, as far as taste was concerned, whether it was hot or cold. Inhaling did nothing for me, either, since the olfactory cells were damaged; the only tastes that were available to me were from the tongue, not the nose.

        It also made little difference to me whether or not the food “looked” appealing. In fact, it was only more frustrating to me that it looked so good and I still couldn’t taste it, which was why, when cooking for myself, I practically never bought expensive meats or fish. Why bother when you can’t taste it anyway? Also, I know that my experience with anosmia was different from others, but as I’ve said before on these boards, I had no need to stimulate my appetite. In fact, just the opposite. Because I couldn’t taste the food, I came to equate feeling stuffed with feeling satisfied and put on a considerable amount of weight during that year.

        I also had the experience of finding many dishes overly salty, and that is perhaps the one lasting result of my anosmia. I still find many, if not most, restaurant dishes, in all but the highest end restaurants, too salty to eat. Most canned, bottled, and frozen foods are just inedible to me.

        My anosmia was the result of a sinus infection and lasted nearly fourteen months. I spent some time at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and they encouraged me to believe that because my anosmia was the result of an infection rather than injury, my sense of smell would eventually return. This was more than ten years ago now, and I still remember the little happy dance I was doing while walking alone on Broadway in Manhattan when I smelled garlic emanating from a pizza parlor.

        1 Reply
        1. re: JoanN

          Yes, I agree with the frustrating/depressing part about the inability to taste the good food right in front of you... However AFAIK, smell training, in the form of repetitively sniffing a particular smell, would allow one to be more able to detect that smell, over time. That is, if one is gaining back the sense of smell, i.e. going from anosmic to hypnosmic. If you are in the latter state, it might be worth trying to do some "training" to improve the sense of smell.

          Also, it is definitely a dance-worthy happy moment, to discover that the most primal of the five senses is back after a long hiatus!

        2. Ahhh….I know this well. I had a sinus infection that went undetected for TWO YEARS….despite going to about four different doctors in that time, who all told me I had allergies, although I had also seen two different allergists during those two years who couldn't figure out what I was allergic to…
          Long story short, I lost my ability to smell for two years. In that two years, I found that overly salty, vinegary and sweet things were the only things I could really enjoy (and I say "enjoy" with a grain of salt). You could give me the sweetest, most delectable strawberry of the season, but unless it was sprinkled with sugar I really couldn't determine what it was. I also over-ate like crazy, because I was never satisfied. I did, however, discover that lemon, olive oil, and chopped garlic was the best salad dressing ever, because I could actually kind of taste it. I ate a lot of potato chips, because the crunch and saltiness was fabulous for me. If you don't want to gain 10 lbs like I did, go with things you know you like that have a very intense taste…Tom Yum soup, for instance. The lemongrass is so powerful that it actually was one of the few things that satisfied me. Hot sauce. Vinegar. Stuff like that. Otherwise, you will overeat just trying to taste something. Not sure what your exact cause of not smelling is, but I did eventually have to get sinus surgery, and while it didn't cure me, it helped a ton!!!!

          1 Reply
          1. re: schrutefarms

            Yes, potato chips - spicy, crunchy, salty, umami (MSG)-laden ones - are probably what saved me from starving to death when I totally lost my sense of smell!

          2. The husband and I have been through this in a few different ways.

            In 2006, we both caught chikungunya, which is a mosquito-borne illness similar to dengue fever. One rare but known side effect of chikungunya is that we couldn't taste salt properly. I'd add about twice as much salt to my cooking before it tasted normal for us, but of course no one else could eat anything I cooked because it was painfully salty. I left the salting to my mother in law when they were in town and the husband and I added salt to our own dishes as needed. This broken salt meter lasted for around a year and still comes back every now and then, sometimes with me being broken, sometimes with the husband being broken. Chikungunya does that - it's the gift that keeps on giving even years after you've had it.

            About a year ago, give or take, we also came down with a cold, I suppose, that resulted in both of us being completely unable to taste or smell anything. Hot sauce, and lots of it, helped a little bit after a couple of weeks, but only very faintly (we both have extremely high tolerances for spices anyway and use it a LOT pretty much every day).

            That lasted for a month or two. We hated eating. It was boring, like eating cardboard, even though the food didn't have the texture of cardboard. It was awful. There was absolutely nothing we could do that made food any more appealing - not inhaling, not adding additional flavours, nothing. There was zero taste and smell. Nothing to work with at all.

            1. I have a slightly different perspective on this issue, because as far as I know, I was born without a sense of smell (either that or I lost it at an age too early to remember). I have never had issues with tasting food, and according to what I have read, your tastebuds eventually compensate when you lose your sense of smell. However, this can apparently take years and years. Your palate may also be limited when it comes to things that are primarily scent-based (many herbs, etc.) - and that is definitely true for me. I tend to over-season food a bit (not salt, but aromatics), but over the years I have learned (by following trusted recipes and the advice of dining companions) how to judge an appropriate amount of any given spice/herb in a dish.

              For me it is really a minor inconvenience (and sometimes a welcome one - bad smells never faze me, which can come in handy when cleaning the litterbox, etc.!), but for people who lose their sense of smell in adulthood, it is MUCH more than that. I've heard horror stories of people committing suicide after losing their sense of smell due to the resultant depression - it's not just the loss of the ability to taste, either. Scent and memory are strongly linked and when you lose your sense of smell, you lose the ability to connect to your past in a very powerful way.