Losing smell, therefore flavour

Marlena Spiller is a food writer, who lost her sense of smell after an accident. The description of her life as an anosmic, just published in the NYT, shows the connection between the sense of smell and flavour perception. Because many people do not realise the contribution of retronasal olfaction to their flavour experience, they report loosing both smell and taste.

“Gently sautéed mushrooms seemed like scorched bits of sponge. Red wine was just flat and sweet or unremittingly bitter. I had lost my ability to taste and smell. It was like a musician losing her hearing.”  She developed new food preferences – noticeably for foods that stimulate the trigeminal nerve, the pathway in the face that senses irritants, which remains intact.

However, the sense of taste is intact in anosmic individuals- it’s the multisensory flavour perception which is affected. Marlena mentions two important aspects of her condition, which are not often discussed: She has smell hallucinations and lost many of her memory of smells and flavours. The memory loss is interesting, as it contradicts a part of the myth of the Proustian madeleine – that olfactory memories are very robust. They might need to be reactivated ; as stressed by Ep Koster, we don’t notice smells we have good memory of, because of their familiarity, but this does not mean that they don’t have an effect on the consolidation of our memories.

Full article here ; listen to Barry Smith’s original interview with Marlena Spiller, BBC4 Food programme here 

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