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What Food Tastes Like with Little Sense of Taste


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For what feels like the fiftieth time this winter, I'm sick: headache, cough, sinuses, blah blah blah. Because I had a necessary and rough week at work, I took decongestants (diphenhydramine and phenylephrine, for those in the know), soldiered on, and kept my fingers crossed. But, as sometimes happens when I'm on cold meds, I lost most of my sense of taste.

I didn't lose all sense of taste, mind you. I just lost mine, which I rely upon a lot more than I think when I'm taking it for granted. I hate this experience, of course, but this time around I decided to try to put it to good use by documenting what food and drink tastes like when I have little sense of taste. I have no idea whether this experience speaks to anyone else with lessened or lost senses of taste, but, boy, the diet I crave is pretty interesting.

Most notably, all subtlety in taste is lost. All I get are certain dominating flavors, many of which are unappealing. Take wine: a glass of wine has no start or finish, no minerals or blackberries. All I get is a mouthful of very unpleasant astringent alcohol that's almost vinegar-like.

While most flavors are gone, precious few remain. Indeed, my mouth has become a machine for the detection of salt and sugar. Salt seems to carry other flavors along with it slightly; the salt in popcorn allows me to detect the barest sense of melted butter (but that may be an illusion; more on that later). Without excessive salt, flavors in savory dishes are nearly impossible to acknowledge at all. I had mac & cheese out at a favorite restaurant two days ago, and I couldn't taste a single bit of cheese without dumping the shaker's contents on each forkful, and even then I got precious little cheesiness. Umami is similar: I just needed 1/4 t of MSG to register.

As for sugar, I'm practically a refractometer: if something is sweet, my tongue registers brix and nearly nothing else. Good vs bad chocolate? Junky milk is a whole lot more pleasurable than some 85% cacao content crap, since I can't detect anything complex (chemicals, interesting notes) in either but sure like that sugar in the former.

While salt and sweet are appealing, anything bitter is nearly inedible, because the bitterness dominates in a very unpleasant way. As I've been chronicling around here, I've been creating a variety of homemade bitters, and each of them now tastes overpoweringly and only of the bitter gentian root; none of the spices, zests, and so on remain. Ditto capiscum: hot food just leaves a nagging burning sensation in my mouth, a shrill pennywhistle lacking the symphony of other flavors.

With little subtletly of flavor left to me, I find myself addicted to foods that provide interesting textures. If it's crunchy, I want it. I'm also drawn to the texture of meat; I like the resistance of the chicken in my rice right now, for example. And if the only thing that a bite of something gives me is the lingering caress of fat on my tongue... well, without flavor I'll gladly settle for mouthfeel.

Are you noticing a pattern here? I want salt, fat, MSG, crunch, and meat for dinner; subtlety is lost on me, so why bother; hot and bitter foods are inedible; load up my cocktails with sugar so I don't notice the alcohol. In short, I crave fast food, soda, snack chips, syrupy vodka drinks, and oversweet sweets -- the manna of industrial food production that I would usually find unpalatable.

This disheartening experience leaves me with a lot of questions. Does anyone else have this experience with cold meds? Are these experiences indicative of anything other than my own current and temporary bad taste buds, or do they speak to the ways that most other folks taste food? Do Frito-Lay, McDonalds, and the people who bring us premade vodkatinis know this already and I'm just dense? What would an evolutionary biologist say?

Most depressingly, is this what it's like to have the mouth of one of my friends or family members who, when they take a bite of my cassoulet or a sip of a Last Word say, "Eh.... It's okay"?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This takes me back to Mr. Horler's freshman biology class. That's where he taught that we can only detect four distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour & bitter. One region of the tongue detects sweet, another salty, et cetera. The rest of our sense of taste is due to the olfactory glands in the nose.

That's why a cold or other sinus condition mutes our taste buds. How antihistamines may accentuate the condition, I do not know.

There are two sides to every story and one side to a Möbius band.

borschtbelt.blogspot.com

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Over the first year or eighteen months of a clinical trial I've been on for over three years now, one of the gene-targeting meds totally screwed up my taste buds. Anything protein based had no flavor at all. But fruits, sweets and some vegetables rang true. It was so impactful that I went to the Univ of PA's taste clinic. They did a day's worth of tests and decided the problem was with my nose and not my taste buds. I didn't and still don't believe them.

Eventually my sense of taste came back. Steaks taste like steaks, and hot dogs don't repulse me. But for the past year or so, any dish with even a hint of heat to it is magnified a hundred times. For a while I couldn't even handle aged provolone on a hoagie because all I could taste was the sharpness of the provolone and none of the other ingredients.

I figured it was a ying and yang thing. The amazing new meds worked, but there had to be a personal price - something that was so valuable to me, like my sense of taste.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I would certainly think that it is the blocked nose that is causing the lack of taste, rather than the meds.

The sea was angry that day my friends... like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

George Costanza

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I had a brain injury about seven years ago and have a total loss of my sense of smell. I have been to the U of Pa clinic, as well - they gave me no hope of its returning.

The kicker is that I make my living in the specialty food industry - I have been selling high-end, artisinal cheeses, oils, pates, etc for the past 30 years. My palate was a 10 and I enjoyed being able to conduct wine and cheese pairings.

My experience is very much like Chris's - I can taste the big 5 flavors, but no nuance or subtlety in between. Texture has become a huge factor to me and I am much more aware of its interest as a component in food. BIG flavors are my faves - spicy, tart, salty are very important and I will probably develop blood pressure probs, since big crystals of sea salt are a necessary part of any plate these days - they provide salt and crunchy texture in one! Can't comment much on the sweet factor - it was never my favorite and is still not. I go for the fatty-salty flavors, but then, I always have. Cheese is the perfect combo of fatty-salty and while I still eat a lot of cheese, I miss being able to smell it first to get the aromas of flavors to come in the first bite.

Wine is a sadness - I never taste at the table, even if I have made the wine choice. I am not confident that I could identify a corky bottle.

Overall, losing one's smell is obviously not as serious as losing sight or hearing. But I am increasingly convinced that smell may be our most primal sense, and operates in a way that is often subliminal. Life without it is diminished, both for the richness of aroma and the complexity of tastes. On the other hand, I have my intelligence and memory intact - looking at it that way, smell is a small price to pay.

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Holly and gariotin, I'm so sorry to hear of your plights. The thought of dealing with this for more than a week or so is unbearable to me, so I don't know how you do it.

The comments about colds and sinuses don't make sense because (1) I've had versions of a head cold several times this winter and haven't lost any sense of taste, (2) the only time I've had this problem has been when I've taken decongestants, and most notably, (3) the decongestants relieve the pressure in my sinuses and clear my nasal passages -- that is to say, I don't have a blocked nose. To confirm this, I just smelled a series of colognes in the house and I can't detect any difference in my ability to smell their nuances. Meanwhile, I just had a See's chocolate caramel (from my west coast Easter-loving in-laws) and only got sweet off of it. Go figure.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This takes me back to Mr. Horler's freshman biology class.  That's where he taught that we can only detect four distinct tastes:  sweet, salty, sour & bitter.  One region of the tongue detects sweet, another salty, et cetera.  The rest of our sense of taste is due to the olfactory glands in the nose.

I agree that what Chris is talking about is better described as a loss of flavor (not taste) largely brought about by a loss of smell. But scientists are increasingly thinking that the old "four dimensions of taste" is not accurate, and that there are myriad possible tastes. Hervé This has a small and illuminating section on this in his otherwise disappointing book, Kitchen Mysteries.

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My mother is in a similar situation, but whether it's because of age or medication or both, we are not sure. It's disheartening, though, because she is one of the people who taught me to really love food, and now she gets much less enjoyment from it.

She does still enjoy eating, but I've noticed the foods or dishes she prefers tend to be on the sweet or salty side (at least for my taste buds). And to help her enjoy food more, she seems to place more weight on texture than she did before.

Chris--have you ever considered using a neti pot? Not really food related (I use kosher salt to make my saline solution--does that count?), but it does wonders for stuffy or almost-stuffy noses. Anyone with allergies or sinus problems should use one!

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Holly and gariotin, I'm so sorry to hear of your plights. The thought of dealing with this for more than a week or so is unbearable to me, so I don't know how you do it.

The comments about colds and sinuses don't make sense because (1) I've had versions of a head cold several times this winter and haven't lost any sense of taste, (2) the only time I've had this problem has been when I've taken decongestants, and most notably, (3) the decongestants relieve the pressure in my sinuses and clear my nasal passages -- that is to say, I don't have a blocked nose. To confirm this, I just smelled a series of colognes in the house and I can't detect any difference in my ability to smell their nuances. Meanwhile, I just had a See's chocolate caramel (from my west coast Easter-loving in-laws) and only got sweet off of it. Go figure.

Chris: I think this makes total sense. I've also discovered that Musinex seems to interfere with taste the least, but decongestant, allergy and pain meds for me drastically interfere with the sense of taste, although the sense of smell is still present.

I've also noticed that with some pain meds, the taste in my mouth is "off" even if I'm just drinking water. For example, codeine gives my mouth a very sweet taste, so all I can taste is salt, and you're right -- cheap sweets taste better than expensive chocolate.

But, the crime and the horror was helping a friend host a wine a cheese tasting party at her house. She has cats, to which I'm horridly allergic, so I took a Claritin. What a waste all of that expensive champagne, wine and port, not to mention beautiful cheeses were. Fortunately, she sent home a care package with some of all of these items so that I could taste them when I could really taste them, not just smell them (and trust me, the smell was there, the taste merely disappointed).

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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This loss of taste happens to me occasionally when I have a cold. I find myself desperately seeking intensely flavored foods (olives, spicy Thai, blue cheese--anything really intense) in the pathetic hope that some taste will make it through. It's never successful, but for the four to seven days my cold, I keep trying. I wonder if, for me, it's like denial. I wonder if I had a longer-lasting condition if I would proceed through the next stages of grief.

My heart goes out to anyone who faces this on any kind of long-term basis.

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I had a brain injury about seven years ago and have a total loss of my sense of smell.  I have been to the U of Pa clinic, as well - they gave me no hope of its returning.

The kicker is that I make my living in the specialty food industry - I have been selling high-end, artisinal cheeses, oils, pates, etc for the past 30 years.  My palate was a 10 and I enjoyed being able to conduct wine and cheese pairings.

My experience is very much like Chris's - I can taste the big 5 flavors, but no nuance or subtlety in between.  Texture has become a huge factor to me and I am much more aware of its interest as a component in food.  BIG flavors are my faves - spicy, tart, salty are very important and I will probably develop blood pressure probs, since big crystals of sea salt are a necessary part of any plate these days - they provide salt and crunchy texture in one!  Can't comment much on the sweet factor - it was never my favorite and is still not.  I go for the fatty-salty flavors, but then, I always have.  Cheese is the perfect combo of fatty-salty and while I still eat a lot of cheese, I miss being able to smell it first to get the aromas of flavors to come in the first bite.

Wine is a sadness - I never taste at the table, even if I have made the wine choice.  I am not confident that I could identify a corky bottle.

Overall, losing one's smell is obviously not as serious as losing sight or hearing.  But I am increasingly convinced that smell may be our most primal sense, and operates in a way that is often subliminal.  Life without it is diminished, both for the richness of aroma and the complexity of tastes.  On the other hand, I have my intelligence and memory intact - looking at it that way, smell is a small price to pay.

My boss( a chef/caterer) has no sense of smell or taste. Its been this way for about 8 months. He's seen a ENT doctor and now he's waiting to see an allergist. I feel really, really bad for him. He's constantly asking one of us to taste what he prepares. I had a horrible cold 2 weeks ago and got a taste of what he's going thru. It made me feel even more sorry for him.

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I don't take decongestants when I have a cold 1) because I hate the dried out nasal passages/dry mouth they give me 2)because they seem, I swear, to dry out my brain and 3)they make me feel speedy/sleepy. And yes, they make my sense of taste even wonkier than stuffed sinuses do. I prefer Sudafed because it keeps things, well, running and I find the chemistry seems to allow me to taste and smell better than does a regular parch-those-passages decongestant.

I agree that texture plays a big part in enjoying food when you're stuffed up/and or medicated. I crave a wedge of iceberg with a blue cheese dressing when I have a cold -- crunch, water, and, well, blue cheese. Coleslaw with a sweet/sour dressing. Celeriac remoulade. In fact, I prefer these tangy crisp water- intensive dishes more when I'm sick than when I'm well.

When healthy,I'm solidly in the protein, fat, salt carbs column. When I have a cold, sweet is lost. Hot is tempered. Bitter recedes. But, I'm taking different drugs. And I detest the fast food flavor range when I'm sick, even my beloved Cheetos.

Be better this spring, Chris.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I have to add that I am not someone blessed with a super-nuanced palate. I often read posts here that describe the flavors of this or that and I am jelous because I don't normally have the ability to detect that depth of flavor. I think that is why I am attracted to very full-flavored cuisines such as Thai, Indian, and Mexican and rarely reach for the simpler preparations of traditional American food.

I try to work at it by not over-salting, but by using salt wisely, and by trying to keep some preparations more simple. But I also wonder if the fact that I have always been susceptible to sinus infections and that I feel like I have very little sense of smell are also connected to the problem as well.

If anyone comes up with a way to enhance a person's tastebuds, other than salt, I am all ears!

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I have a friend who totally lost her sense of smell, and thus much of her sense of taste, as a result of using nasal decongestant sprays. Her doctor agrees that's what caused it, and now, several years later, he agrees that she'll probably never recover. I think that if one can avoid them, one should. She's really thin (and doesn't care about food), because she can't really taste it, but hey, it's not a worthwhile tradeoff.

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I read once that people who have lost their sense of smell (and therefore taste) have a really high rate of suicide. I'm pretty sure I read this in Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, a fascinating book about the perfume industry and other related topics.

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If anyone comes up with a way to enhance a person's tastebuds, other than salt, I am all ears!

Not to throw a wet blanket on your project, LizD518, but I cannot imagine any sort of endeavor that would address my particular problem. Tonight I made a sichuan pork dish in the hopes of obliterating my annoyingly inept taste buds but... it didn't work.

Makes me think that all that advice about "educating your palate" may be claptrap to a large percentage of those who have "uneducated" ones.....

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I read once that people who have lost their sense of smell (and therefore taste) have a really high rate of suicide. I'm pretty sure I read this in Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, a fascinating book about the perfume industry and other related topics.

I can see how some people would want to pack it in - I went thru the Elizabeth Kubler Ross stages of depression and it has taken some time. Now, I rarely think about it - humans are very adaptable. I used to be a great cook and now I am always less confident when I entertain. Luckily my daughter is a grad of the Cordon Bleu, so she steps in and seasons things right before we serve!

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I used to not allow my husband to taste wine in public because even the best of bottles ...make him make a face that was mortifying ..he said he could not help it ..I accused him of being a "drama King" and we finally came to terms with him not being a wine drinker ...sigh

then after almost a year of being sick with sinus issues.. he met a surgeon who offered to do some corrections of his apparently malfunctioning sinus's (no details needed here)

anyway long story short..very shortly after the surgery he started to exclaim his love for foods he had never found too exciting before...as soon as he was off pain meds I could not wait ...we tried wine and guess what? ....well into his 40's he was able to say that he loves wine!!! he can taste subtle flavors now..is better at tasting than I am that is for sure ..

he said it was like "seeing" after all those years of not even knowing what he was missing ...to suddenly be able to taste food and wine to the fullest was amazing to him...he kept sipping and saying "I know what this is about now" cheese as well ...

I think it is much different and harder.. to have the sense of smell/taste then loose it than to actually not know what you are missing...my husband never knew life was any other way ...he liked to eat and could taste... but no depth to his enjoyment ..just the ability to say he liked it or not...and wine was just awful to him ...

the doctor cracked up when he went for his follow up and brought him a bottle of wine and with excitement was able to tell him what to look for in it ..he was/still is like a kid about tasting things just to see what they taste like with his new "vision"

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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Sinus, bingo!

Dont be so quick to dismiss sense of smell as a driver of sense of taste. They are clearly separate but very tightly interrelated. Much of sense of smell goes on in the mouth, up the back entrance to the nose, rather than thru the front door.

Thru many a cold & completely stuffed nose, I've retained much of my sense of taste. But a sinus infection took it completely away for a month. Nothing tasted of anything except sweet or salt, and then only if grossly overseasoned. Horrible time period. :sad:

Some sinus problems run long term and are essentially asymptomatic, but apparently have this effect on taste. So, if your sense of taste doesnt come back soon, might want to get your sinuses checked. If there's no treatable infection, Neti pots are all the rage, and from what I am hearing from friends, for very good reason.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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hi

i am 49 years old and can never remember being able to smell anything. If i hold my nose over a bottle of ammonia and inhale i can faintly detect a irritating condition. IE that is the air I'm breathing is different. I have seen specialists and had a cat scan and was told i have no cells to convert the chemical smell to an electrical impulse. My taste is also very limited . I cannot taste garlic in garlic bread. The difference between a strawberry and a tomato can only be detected through the texture of it in my mouth. A a party once it was late and dark i picked up a wine bottle and took a large swig. I thought with even my sense of taste this was a pretty ordinary bottle of wine. I walk into the light to read the label and realised i had just consumed a half a bottle of "yeo's superior soy sauce.

However cooking is my passion and i have been cooking for thirty years for my family. I have a troop of admirers of my cooking who are also my critics and taste team. I have been known to wander out onto the street to accost passers by and get them to taste my creations. I prefer foods like olives,pickles, rollmops, chilli,limes and lemons, cabbage and blue cheeses. I recently built a wood fired brick oven in my backyard and half the enjoyment is having friends over to taste dishes. I sometimes think that there is more to food that just the smell and taste. There is also the decour the atmosphere the company the music etc that all are a integral part of the moment for me.

I work as a plumber so having no sense of smell can me an asset on occasion.

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Indeed Moses, welcome! Can you tell us a bit about what it's like to be so devoted to cooking and food while lacking smell and taste? I know that it's probably hard to do that -- no basis for comparison -- but I'm sure we'd all be fascinated to read what you've got to say on the matter.

Over here, my head is still stuffed up but my sense of taste is back just in time for a marathon of bacon-smoking and nibbling.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This is a very timely discussion for me, seeing as I have had several months of various "head and throat" things. Took 3 kinds of antibiotics to clear up the acute things......and finally allergy meds to clear up underlying problem. At various times I lost sense of smell, but not taste, though it was a bit less.

One interesting factor was the last antibiotic caused what the long paper of side effects called "bad taste in mouth". THAT is an understatement! Sucked a bag full of tic tacs, mentos, and other hard things for 10 days. Through all this with the the awful taste I could still taste everything I ate....having something in my mouth covered up the taste.....but only as long as it was there....no carryover.

My sympathies to any without those senses.....what a loss.

Second the Yeti pot, I actully use the Niel Med "squirter" which ENT recommended. Very easy and you can mix the salt/baking soda mix yourself.

J

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hi

even though i cannot smell i have a memory bank full of smells that i know people enjoy,, simply from being with friends and family and discussing smell. For example bread baking, vanilla, rosemary, the seaside, freshly mowen grass, the smell after rain. Not having a sense of smell still lets me recreate aromas for others and then i get to participate in their enjoyment. An orchid placed in the house strategically, people comming in the door to the smell of an authentic indian curry. When cooking i work to a basic recipe if i havnt made the dish before. Then i ask people what they think, does it need more this or that next time. I also ask my victims what flavours they can taste in it. Next time i act on the feedback and try to perfect the dish. Since joining egullet i have concentrated on the appearance of the food more ie. plating also the science behind steps and practices in the cooking process. Reading the dan leopard forums on baking breads has really lifted my game. Texture is also a very important aspect for me i enjoy food sometimes simply for the feel of it in my mouth. Pearl barley slimmy yet crunchy, polenta sweet sandpaper, cabbage sqeaky crunch the list is being added to every day. i would love to know how others relate to the texture of their food.

cheers

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Second the Yeti pot, I actully use the Niel Med "squirter" which ENT recommended. Very easy and you can mix the salt/baking soda mix yourself.

Neti pot. I don't think a Yeti needs a pot... :biggrin:

For the last week I've been sick as a dog, and am finally on some super-duper antibiotics (so super-duper I don't even want to say what they are).

Interestingly, I've been pretty much able to taste everything (as far as I know) throughout this past week. Although my sinuses are congested and my nose has been running, I've been keeping my nose relatively clear through use of a neti pot. What I've noticed is that I haven't been able to stomach strong flavours. I was in Hong Kong during the first half of my illness, and the roast goose almost made me upchuck at the table. The last time I was sick like this, I tried to make tom yum, and that also made me feel sick to my stomach.

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