If You Can’t Smell, Can You Taste?


Smelling image via Shutterstock

I’m perfectly suited to answer the Big Question that reader Katie posed the other day, because I have anosmia, which means I can’t smell. At all. Every diaper my two-year-old has ever filled has been totally odorless to me. I also missed out on her new baby smell, which I hear is pretty fantastic. I can’t tell if I come back to work still stinky from a lunchtime run, which often concerns me, but other people’s B.O. doesn’t bother me either. I’m never tempted by the smell of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels wafting through the mall, and when someone burns popcorn in the microwave at work, I really don’t care. I’m also convinced I’m going to die due to a gas leak sometime when I’m alone in the house.

The first thing people always ask when they find out about my lack of smell is, “Wait, but can you taste?”

As you no doubt already know, taste and smell are very closely related. Food odors engage the olfactory nerves in noses while taste buds react on your tongue, and together the two combine to make your eating experience enjoyable (or not). So, it’s reasonable to say that anosmiacs only get half the experience.

I personally have a preference for things that rank high on the spectrum of salty, sweet, sour and bitter. I’m not totally confident that I taste umami at all. Sauerkraut right out of the can is delicious. I’ve never met a sweet that was “too rich” for me. Bring on the spicy foods. But I find it impossible to distinguish between specific flavors. Jolly Ranchers all taste the same to me, unless I get a sour one like green apple or lemon. I could never taste a homecooked meal and compliment the chef on her unique blend of spices. Sage, basil, oregano - it’s all the same (though cilantro tastes kind of soapy to me).

Researchers think that 1 in 5,000-10,000 people worldwide are afflicted with some form of anosmia. There are lots of ways to lose your sniffer. As some people get older, they find that their sense of smell is less acute simply due to aging. Other causes include head trauma, smoking, nasal polyps and many diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. As far as I know, none of those apply to me: I have Congenital Anosmia, AKA, baby, I was born this way.

Here’s an anosmic trying to differentiate between tastes while blindfolded. The results make me think that every anosmic experiences taste differently, because I’m quite sure I would know the difference between orange juice and cranberry juice.