How anosmia affects your relationship with food

How does having zero sense of smell affect your enjoyment of food?

Emma Hunter
27th February 2023
Image credit: Pixabay
"Can anyone else smell that?", "Damn, that smells good." Or "Ew, who just let one out?" All phrases that make my heart sink a little. Not because I’m the guilty farter (be honest though, we all have been at some point), but because I will never be able to experience what they’re experiencing.

I have a condition called anosmia, meaning I have absolutely no sense of smell. I cannot smell anything, never have done, and never will. Most people are quite confused when they first hear this; the first time I noticed anosmia get any attention was during the pandemic, because, as you probably remember, Covid can cause a temporary, or even permanent loss of smell. It should be getting even more attention this Monday 27th, though, as it it’s Anosmia Awareness Day. Ever the faithful anosmic, I’m going to do my bit, by talking about my own experience.

I cannot smell anything, never have done, and never will

The type of anosmia I have is genetic, which means it comes with a whole host of other potential health issues, but one way in which it has made me noticeably different to others is my relationship to food. Taste and smell are inextricably linked, because the odours of the food go through your nasal passage when you eat – which means I guess I’m missing out on a major part of the eating experience. Basically, I can’t taste very well. If I eat something sugary, I know it’s sweet, but it pretty much ends there: you’re telling me chocolate, the hard brown crunchy stuff, can taste like orange, the tangy juicy stuff? Or that ice cream can taste of vanilla? Or crisps of cheese and onion? To me, it just doesn’t add up.

To make up for it, I think I’m very sensitive to the texture of food, which makes it very easy for certain foods to gross me out. Sometimes this can come across as childish picky eating – it is embarrassing when all your flatmates are enjoying, say, cheesecake, or custard, and I have to say no because eating it is just… unpleasant. I also often don’t see the appeal in cooking and end up eating the same basic meals multiple times a day – my flatmates are used to me eating whole tins of chickpeas in one go now, but I bet they were weirded out at first. Whether I eat, and when, also comes down to hunger rather than cravings and taste, which seems to be more the case for you normies. Another fussy behaviour I have is that I like to eat individual foods separately, because if I eat everything together (taking a whole bite of a burger, for example), I can’t taste anything at all. I have to admit, it can be a little frustrating sometimes when people berate me for this; the whole aromatic world is already inaccessible to me, okay? Let me enjoy my weird anosmic meals.

That said, take what I describe with a pinch of salt (that I can barely taste); though I’ve had this condition for my entire life, it’s much more common for people to lose their sense of smell at a point during their lives, due to things like head injuries or illnesses. I’ve heard it’s incredibly disconcerting and distressing to go from experiencing the full range of taste and flavours to barely anything. Many become depressed and lose all interest in food, or even overeat just to get a feeling of satisfaction that they would normally get from the balance of flavours. There are certain techniques to help you increase your enjoyment of food to combat this. Thankfully though, I’ve never known anything different, so I’m content the way it is.

I clearly remember asking my parents, aged 5, when they were going to teach me to smell because everyone else in my class had already learnt

With regards to food, inherited anosmia on its own is no bad thing at all – I’d obviously much rather choose this than deafness or blindness. It’s even given me quite a few funny anecdotes: I clearly remember asking my parents, aged 5, when they were going to teach me to smell because everyone else in my class had already learnt. I can also down whole jars of mustard in one go – a good party trick. If you do ever meet someone with anosmia though, some words of advice: we really don’t want scented candles or diffusers as gifts; and don’t panic: we don’t have Covid. I do wonder though, without a sense of smell, am I missing out on anything? Who nose...

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