Poor Smell and Taste
Poor Smell and Taste
• A loaf of homemade crusty bread just out of the oven
• A red Mister Lincoln rose, petals unfurling
• A walk in the woods after a spring rain shower
• Your grandchild’s freshly bathed and powdered little body in your arms
If your answer is that they all still look and feel great but you can no longer smell them, then welcome to one of the most insidious parts of aging: a decline in the ability to smell and taste.
This change profoundly affects your relationship with food as well as many other sensory delights. When the senses of taste and smell are poor, food becomes less interesting. This often causes you to undereat, setting you up for energy and nutrition deficits. Or you might swing too far the other way, overeating in a misguided effort to find something—anything—that tastes good.
The sense of taste is limited to the perception of four basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Smell is what we perceive with our noses. As you chew food, the vapors of the food will reach the olfactory (smell) receptors through the nasal cavity . The combined experience of taste, smell, texture, and temperature is called flavor.
When you lose the ability to taste food, it’s really because your sense of smell is diminished. This is most often caused by a gradual increase in the obstruction of the nasal passages, as with sinus disease or by sudden viral infections such as a common cold or flu, says Miriam Linschoten, Ph.D., research associate at the University of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center in Denver.
Loss of taste and smell is more than just an impediment to gastronomic pleasure. A loss of smell can mean that you don’t know when something is burning on the stove.
Fortunately, there are some strategies that you can practice to help make eating a pleasurable, sensory experience again. Likewise, there are precautions you can take to ensure that you are safe in your own home.
Try This First
Take advantage of the trigeminal nerve to give you gustatory sensation by adding a little pepper, horseradish, mustard, or hot sauce to your foods.
“It means you take a mouthful of food and get some sensation from it—as opposed to nothing—and that’s a positive thing,” says Claire Murphy, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the Smell and Taste Clinic at the University of California, San Diego. “If you add hot peppers, then the food becomes appealing in its own right.”
Menthol and mint flavors are also felt by the trigeminal nerve, so adding peppermint to cookies and ice cream and using mint in cooking are also good ideas.
Other Wise Ways
Give yourself an eyeful. “If you go into a French restaurant and things are served beautifully, that’s so appealing,” Dr. Murphy says. Contrast that dining experience with the sight of potatoes and pork or some other light-colored meat and a vegetable like turnips.
Adding diversity to the color of the foods on your plate goes a long way toward making a meal look good. Chef Janos Wilder, who own Janos Restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, says reds, greens, and yellows actually make food more appealing. So instead of having a pale pork chop with mashed potatoes and turnips, try having it with bright red beets, dark green spinach, and multihued wild rice. And then sprinkle on some fresh green herbs such as rosemary and thyme. This not only adds color but also packs an aromatic punch.
Work in contrasts. “The easiest contrast in taste is sweet and sour,” says Wilder. But don’t limit yourself to contrasts in taste. Serving hot and cold items together, like a dollop of cold salsa on hot soup, Wilder suggests, is a contrast that adds some interest.
Cook in flavorful ways. When certified master chef Ronald De Santis, senior professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, wants to add a flavor punch to food, he thinks about cooking methods. If you’re cooking a food by poaching, boiling, or steaming, add herbs, spice seeds, and lemon zest to the water to infuse the food with additional flavor.
Roast and grill foods. These methods of preparation leave a nice browned, carmelized crust on foods that is appealing to the eye. That carmelization and some of the charred flavor found in grilled foods add a further flavor dimension.
Make food the focus. When you sit down to a meal, you want distractions kept to a minimum, says Richard Doty, Ph.D., director of the University of Pennsylvania Smell and Taste Center and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, both in Philadelphia. This means turning off the television and turning on the answering machine. Putting on a little music and lighting a candle makes a meal more of a sensory, leisurely event.
Take a while to thoroughly chew each bite. In addition to making your digestion easier, this little trick helps break down the cells of food and releases more flavor compounds, Dr. Schiffman says.
When serving older people in her own home, Dr. Schiffman likes to keep food covered as she serves it. She puts the plate of food right under the person’s nose, then takes the cover off so the first smell is sudden and strong.
Switch-hit around your plate. Imagine walking into a kitchen where bread is being baked. The smell hits you at first, but wait a few minutes, and you won’t notice it any longer. It’s called adapting out. “That same thing happens when you eat three bites of food in a row,” Dr. Schiffman notes. “The first bite is strong. The next bite is a little weaker. The third is weaker yet.” To lessen this phenomenon, change from food to food around your plate as you eat.
Pucker up. The sense of smell is usually more compromised than the sense of taste, which detects sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. So eating foods that appeal to these taste groups can ensure that you have a sensory sensation. Because of the high-fat content in sweets and the risks of too much salt in the diet, it’s better to stick with appealing to sour and bitter tastes. Doesn’t sound appetizing? Beer, seltzer water, coffee, and brussels sprouts are examples of bitter foods that most people have learned to like. Lemons and lemon flavoring, pickles, pickled beets, and pickled eggs are sour foods that you might enjoy. Just know that sour, acidic foods like citrus fruits can eat away at teeth enamel, so it would be a good idea to brush your teeth after consuming them, says Daniel Kurtz, Ph.D., director of the smell and taste disorders clinic at the State University of New York in Syracuse.
Beware of leftovers. “I get quite a few people who lose their senses of smell for one reason or another and then get food poisoning,” Dr. Linschoten warns. She suggests that people take freshness dates on foods seriously. Label and date your leftovers. If food has been around for a week or more, just throw it out rather than relying on your sense of smell to tell you if it’s still good or not.
Think zinc. A zinc deficiency can affect taste and smell, so taking a zinc supplement may be a good idea, says Laurent Chaix, doctor of naturopathy and supervisor of the teaching clinic at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon.
Also, people who are on dialysis tend to lose zinc, Dr. Kurtz says. Look for a zinc supplement or a multivitamin that provides the Daily Value of 15 milligrams, he suggests. You may also want to discuss with your doctor being tested for a zinc deficiency.
Make sure your dentures fit. Dentures can interfere with eating sensations by covering part of your soft palate and some of the tastebuds there. If your dentures don’t fit well, they also could put pressure on and damage the nerves that convey taste information, Dr. Linschoten says. And if dentures aren’t kept clean, they are a cause of bacterial growth that could coat your tongue and make the taste receptors harder to reach.
Be honest with yourself and family. If you think you may be having a sensory loss in the taste and smell department, let your family know, says Dr. Doty. You may be able to call on them to sniff out things in your home that you might be unaware of.
Not surprisingly, people who lose their senses of smell fear that others will detect their body odor. “People become insecure because they don’t know whether they need a bath or whether they’ve put on too much perfume,” Dr. Linschoten says.
Honesty is also important when you are cooking for others, because you won’t be able to tell if a food is seasoned properly, according to Dr. Kurtz. Ask a friend or family member who will be dining with you to be a taste tester.
Managing Your Meds
Many medicines can affect either the sense of smell or the sense of taste, causing what are called reversible taste perversions that can change the taste of your own saliva as well as the taste of the foods you eat.
Often, drugs affect certain parts of your tastebud palette. “You taste grapefruit and all of a sudden it tastes sweet,” says Charles Lacy, Pharm.D., drug information specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. This change in the way your tastebuds function leads to a perversion of what food used to taste like.
Some of the drugs commonly used by people older than 60 that can warp the senses of taste and smell are:
• Calcium channel blockers (Procardia, Vascor)
• Drugs used for Parkinson’s disease (Levodopa, Dopar)
• Psychiatric drugs such as lithium (Lithane) and fluoxetine (Prozac)
• Adrenocorticoids used for nasal allergies and chronic bronchial asthma (Doxycycline)
Over-the-counter drugs such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and aspirin also can affect your sense of taste and smell.
Anything with a high mineral content, including some vitamins, iron tablets, and zinc lozenges for the flu, can alter taste, leading to a metallic flavor in the mouth, Dr. Lacy says.
If your doctor changes your medication to one that impacts your sense of taste and smell less, it may be a while before you experience improvement because the effects of your previous medicine may linger.
Invest in detectors. Smelling gas leaks and smoke from a fire becomes more difficult as the sense of smell declines. Buy smoke alarms and change their batteries twice every year. If you have gas appliances, you can use soapy water to check the gas pipes for leaks, says Dr. Linschoten. Every two months, put the soapy water on the gas pipes in your house. If there’s a leak, the water mixture will bubble. But, of course, even that’s not foolproof. If you can afford it, replace your gas appliances with electric, Dr. Doty advises.
In addition, it would pay to have a carbon monoxide detector ($30 to $50), Dr. Kurtz says. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can’t be detected even when you have a good sense of smell. But it’s usually the by-product of a combustion process, and people take action such as identifying the cause or calling the fire department when they smell something burning. If you are unable to smell those combustion fumes, you are at a greater risk of suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you have a natural gas source in your home or office, it also makes sense to purchase a natural gas detector ($30 to $50) if your sense of smell is impaired.