Opinion: Loss of Taste

Our senses are important to eating. Eating is one of the few activities we do that involves all five of our senses – sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing.

We use our senses to manage the world around us – for safety, security, movement and general living. Our eyes provide sight, our ears process sound. Our skin provides touch. Our noses provide smell and we taste using our mouth and tongue.

Sensory perception is something we take for granted – and is often only noticed when we lose it. Our sense of taste is hardwired. It designed for primeval safety – telling us what is safe to eat and what is not. A young baby will smile when given something sweet but will grimace if given something bitter or sour. We are born with a liking for sweet things as carbohydrates are a good source of energy, and we like salty as we need salt to survive.

Smell preference is, however, largely learned – we experience smells from birth – some are associated with pleasure – others with pain or danger. Throughout life we amass a library of smells we like and those we don’t. We build up an olfactory memory. Indeed, smell and memory are linked. The hippocampus – in the cerebral cortex of the brain, which encompasses the olfactory system – constructs the perception of odours and tastes from the information it has received from the mouth and nose. The hippocampus is also responsible for memory and emotion, which is why smell, tastes and flavour have significant memory effects and can stir up past emotions.

One of the telltale signs of COVID-19 is the loss or distortion of smell and taste. An estimated 86% of cases will display signs of olfactory dysfunction. In many cases, patients cannot perceive smells – known as anosmia. Others describe a warped sense of smell and taste, making previously familiar scents and flavours taste rancid, and being assaulted with the overwhelming stench of rotting fish, faeces or acrid chemicals. Or smells get locked in and you cannot smell anything else.

Losing the ability to smell presents practical dangers as well; for example, we use our sense of smell to tell if something’s burning, or if there’s a gas leak nearby. But there’s also the more mundane question of how to get through each day, each meal, each bite without quite knowing how food will taste or even what we are eating.

For most people, this disturbing loss of the sense of smell and taste lasts only a few weeks. But for some it can last months. It is frightening for anyone to be locked in a sensory desert but devastating for chefs and food professionals. Smell and taste is especially important for chefs and food professionals. Without it we cannot taste the products we are making. We cannot adjust the seasoning or detect off flavours. We cannot differentiate and appreciate quality foods. We cannot taste wine. We lose all perspective.

For the 10% or so who, because of COVID-19, lose their sense of smell and taste for months, particularly those who love to cook and eat, something that once brought joy is now, at best, a flavourless chore, or at worst, a gag-worthy gamble. When things no longer taste like they used to, or like anything at all, how does one recalibrate eating and drinking?

As they say. We don’t know what we’ve got until its gone. I urge everyone, especially food professionals, to get vaccinated, and hopefully the vaccines that are on the way will protect most of us from this disturbing scenario.

By Jeremy Ryland

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

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