Smell loss affects millions of people worldwide. At first glance it doesn’t sound all that bad, but the sense of smell is closely intertwined with the ability to enjoy food – research suggests up to 80 percent of flavor is based on smell, not taste, and the loss of one’s ability to enjoy simple things like favorite foods and drinks can lead to depression and feelings of isolation.
In order to fully understand smell loss it’s important to understand how smell works. Smells come from small molecules called “odorants.” When these molecules enter the nose they bind to receptors and send a signal to the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain that sits right above the nasal cavity in humans. These signals are interpreted in the bulb, giving the sensation of smell. If something interferes with the process, smell loss occurs.
Complete smell loss (anosmia) and incomplete smell loss (hyposmia) can be temporary or permanent, and can be caused by many things, from something simple like a nasal blockage to more complex cases resulting from a brain injury. Depending on the root cause smell loss may be treatable, though many cases caused by brain injury are not.
No matter what causes smell loss, it greatly affects the sense of taste. Without smell, foods start to taste bland and unsatisfying, causing anosmics and hyposmics to lose interest in eating which can in turn lead to depression. With reduced taste, other food qualities become important in enjoying meals. Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen is anosmic, and has said the condition has caused him to favor foods with more texture – which is why his company’s ice cream has a distinctive, chunky style.