Lose smell, keep taste


The brain perceives through "sweetness enhancing" the combination of strawberries and sugar to be sweeter than sugar alone, which is incorrect.

When we’re sick with stuffy noses, we don’t smell or taste much of anything. This experience forms the basis for a common misconception that if we lose our sense of smell, we also lose our sense of taste. But a group of researchers studying the effect of smell on taste have reached a different conclusion: loss of smell does not mean loss of taste (DOI: 10.1037/a0018766 ). The recruited 581 generally healthy men and women who were experiencing changes to their sense of smell and gave them a battery of 40 olfactory tests. Controlling for age and sex, the researchers found that impaired or decreases sense of smell did not decrease the ability to taste. Further, they reconfirmed the results of previous studies on taste and smell: women outperformed men, older persons performed less well than younger persons, and head trauma induced the greatest taste loss. Citric acid was the only exception where men outperformed women in identifying the taste.

Still, these two sensory systems are perceptually interrelated. Olfactory sensations derived from the noste-throat pathway, such as peppermint and eucalyptus, are often incorrectly attributed to taste. They are actually smells. Smells can also become associated with taste qualities through conditioning.

For example, odors such as vanilla and caramel come to be described as having a “sweet” quality as a result of associations with sugar present in the foods in which they are commonly encountered, such as candy or ice cream. This cognitive assoication, known as “flavor banking,” has been demonstrated even when an initially unfamiliar odor is paired with sugar.

Another related cognitive phenomenon is sweetness enhancement. The combination of two familiar “sweet” items, such as strawberry and sugar syrup, become perceived as sweeter than sugar syrup alone, when in fact pure sugar is the sweetest substance.

Exactly how the senses of smell and taste intertwine is still subject to research. One thing is clear:  the brain is responsible for our perceptions of both.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: This weekly feature, the Science of Smell, appears on Fridays and endeavors to answer basic questions about this ancestral sense.

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