Rachel Herz PhD is the author of The Scent of Desire and Why You Eat What You Eat. We interviewed her a couple of months ago (you can read that here) and she has very kindly written the following article for us.
Anosmia steals much of the pleasure from eating. For example, one can no longer experience the uniquely delicious flavors of bacon or chocolate, and instead only saltiness and sweetness remain. Salty and sweet are certainly pleasant taste sensations, but they don’t compare to the joy that people who have lost their sense of smell used to know from eating. Is there any way for people with anosmia to get back more pleasure from food?
The answer is yes – using both one’s mind and other senses. To start with, you can get more pleasure from anything the more engaged you are with it – the more involved, the more actively attentive, and mindful you are of that moment.
Take walking. If you’re hurrying along not paying attention, the act of walking itself might not be noticed at all, but scan your body and your surroundings as you’re stepping—notice the sights, the sounds, how your feet, thighs and knees feel while putting one foot in front of the other, and walking becomes much more immersive, interesting and pleasurable—unless of course your knees are hurting, or you have a blister on your toe, or are walking by an extremely noisy or unsightly scene. Luckily, however, engagement almost always powerfully and positively augments the experience of eating.
Research with people who have a fully functioning sense of smell has revealed that they enjoy what they’re eating more, value it more highly, and feel more satiated and satisfied from consuming less when they are actively engaged in the act of eating.
And these results have much more to do with being mentally engaged than in being able to detect food aromas. For example, studies have shown that performing any kind of ritual before eating—such as rapping on the table in a certain way, opening up foods in a certain order, saying certain incantations or singing certain songs, as well as being involved in making the food oneself, dramatically increases the pleasure that is obtained from food.
People who don’t have a sense of smell can benefit from this sort of engagement too. Paying attention to our other senses can also help a lot. Here are just a few examples.
Our eyes are particularly powerful players when it comes to augmenting the experience of food. As just one illustration, how artfully you arrange food on a plate can have a big impact in how pleasing what you’re eating can seem, as well as how engaged you are with it.
If you make an effort to arrange your food in interesting, neat, and attractive ways and pay attention to the color of sauces and garnishes and how they contrast and work with the main ingredients you will find yourself much more absorbed in what you are consuming.
Anosmics can also take advantage of their ears to make food more engaging. Music that is conceptually or thematically congruent with a dish, such as sea faring mariners’ songs with fish and seafood meals, will make these foods come alive emotionally and mentally and therefore make the act of eating more fun and involving.
The sense of touch can help too. If you like the taste of sourness, eating from plates or holding forks that have a bit of a sandpapery finish will make what you’re tasting seem sourer. This is because we’ve learned through association that rough finishes on food are correlated with sour taste—remember those lemon-flavored pastilles you used to eat as a child? Also, when you’re eating those pastilles now and can’t detect any aroma but you notice their roughness this might trigger memories of eating them in the past, which will bring more richness and engagement to those candies now.
Along similar lines, take stock of the texture of food in your mouth and on your tongue. Is it creamy, oily, crunchy? Do you like these sensations? Fattiness and crunchiness are typically very pleasant sensations, but if you were focusing on the flavor of a food (which you would if you could smell) you might not notice these textures nearly as much and therefore get let less pleasure from them than if these were the main sensations you could engage with. So, there can be some advantage to not being able to smell.
Often anosmics also experience more intense basic taste sensations than people with a fully functioning sense of smell, since tastes aren’t competing with aromas in the mouth for attention. But this can also mean that certain tastes are overpowering when we’d prefer them not to be.
If, for example, you’re getting too much saltiness from a fish and chips dinner, try a spritz of lemon—it’s not just a garnish. Citric acid, which is found in various citrus fruits like lemons, decreases the amount of saltiness we can detect because it dramatically increases the amount of sodium (aka salt) in our saliva.
At first blush this may seem counterintuitive, but in order to perceive the saltiness in food, what we’re eating has to have more sodium in it than our saliva does. So if you increase the saltiness of your saliva the less salty your food will taste. Note, however, that if you love salt and are trying to be careful about much salt you consume, you might want to avoid using citrus fruits in cooking.
Paying attention and noticing how the touch, sight, taste and sound of the food you’re consuming, what feelings it evokes, and whether and how these feelings are connected to your past, will allow unrealized sensations and forgotten memories to help fill in the spaces of any food whose flavor you are missing.
This can be especially helpful when trying to conjure the meaningfulness and pleasure of foods connected to holidays, or special occasions. Indeed, emotion is a critical aspect of food, and emotion itself is highly connected to our sense of smell, even if you can’t smell.
Our capacity to experience emotions evolved out of the neural tissue that was originally dedicated to only processing chemicals—aka odors. Moreover, emotions and scents give us very similar information—approach what is good, and avoid what is bad.
Taking stock of the senses you have and your thoughts, feelings and memories will augment the meaningfulness and sensations of any dish. Even though this engagement isn’t a substitute for the true flavor you are missing, it will make eating a more immersive, positive, and stimulating experience.