COVID: Smell, taste and the lessons for the food industry

I am delighted to be Interviewed for Food Navigator.

Almost a year since the start of the pandemic in Europe, many of those infected who reported losing their sense of smell and consequently taste — even without displaying other symptoms — still haven’t recovered these senses. What implications could this potentially bring food industry innovation? Here I answer their questions…


What is the eating experience like for those deprived of smell and taste?

Over the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to talk with 10 individuals that have suffered temporal anosmia and dysgeusia due to contracting Covid-19. Their countries included Albania, France and Canada.

What I have discovered is that the core problem that emerges is one of sensory and stimulation deprivation.

Being described as having a mouth like ‘chewing on hay’  or ‘porcelain’ and cardboard. Their food is then perceived as lacking a strong, natural and fresh tastes and in mouth flavours they experience are now too simplistic. Their inability to perceive flavours prevents the production an appetite and of the positive, learnt emotions driven by tastes and more powerfully, from the aromas.

Are there any implications in this for the food industry?

Yes there are. From my cross cultural study, I found that that the individual both becomes bored and disconnected —they seek other entertainment. Often they turn more to social media using – scrolling, seeing more Netflix, acting as food substitutes. (More comments below on food manufacturing ideas).

For example, many sufferers from loss of sense and smell can only experience tastes that are highly salty or sweet.

They are using, for example, high salt and fat snacks, yet what they want is a food with a higher impact then what they are having, the food that can at last trigger their positive emotional memories.

As for sugar, we understand that a great carrier of flavour is sweetness with sugar as its foremost performer. This drives the consumer to use sweet items. Sadly, stimulation like that requires ever higher peaks of impact and both taste buds and the receiving of messages by the brain easily become inured to the same taste impact level.

Are there any new tastes or textures that can potentially allow sufferers from loss of sense and smell a more fulfilling and nutritious eating experience?

What all consumers with this devastating anosmia would like is good quantity of food with a pleasant persistent flavour – as this can’t be perceived by them the texture is important too. Nothing stimulates like texture.  A firmer texture may help to extend time in mouth and extend the taste. What they are searching for are moments of high intense flavours that uplifts them by triggering those positive learnt emotional memories that form the basis for their preferences.

As such crisp foods that shatter also work well and spread successfully through the mouth with high intensity. A crisp front of mouth awakens them, enhancing their awareness and involvement through its noise, accentuated through the bones of the head.  This will help cut through their boredom, enables them to exit an unattractive mood and re-start in a new direction and thus be refreshed.

For example crisps/chips, biscuits/cookies, toast, breakfast cereals, french fries and vegetables all do this well, but they can be unhealthy and not helpful if used for longer periods of time.  The more natural foods, without resorting to fats, salt or added sugar, which carry the impact, should be used wherever possible such as ice, celery, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, nuts… – all are successful in crunch.  This is the basis of snack foods – where crunch equals excitement!. The food industry could use this knowledge in a positive way.  With food manufacturers therefore providing foods that are more complex,  with extensive use of textural variation to provide greater chewing response and duration within the mouth.

Contrasting features of foods are also important, just like a story or a film we like changes, twists in plot  – every eating experience Is filled with key themes e.g. aroma, mid mouth, texture aftertaste etc. Often the meals and products we like best have flavour or texture contrasts within them. Like for example a nutty, crispy texture with a soft gooey filling. Sufferers should build taste journeys around this insight with a mix of textures, plus cold and warm temperatures in dishes which are perceived as pleasant because they are contrasting and stimulate the trigeminal nerve – Trigeminal sensations once established are quite often preferred and often have a repeated use. Sadly, that said, It may be that the virus also targets the trigeminal nerve with some patients unable to detect even the spice of chilli.

Nevertheless, this role of stimulating the trigeminal nerve may be worth exploring as trigeminal triggers rewards are so hight as they provide us with pain & pleasure. Potential suffers could explore the use of Texture/touch, with Ice / Heat or Chili / Wasabi.  The ‘thrill’ of a strong sensation should lead to a release of endorphins.

To wash it down, a heavy sticky drink that adheres to the mouth and tongue might also maximises flavour delivery. Long lasting and soft textures so that flavour is released over a longer length of time and spread throughout the mouth. Thus more taste buds are hit and the flavour impact and stimulation is greater. Or alternatively trying a variety sodas with differing carbonation levels can provide intrigue and stimulation – many have an aggressive fizz that is highly compelling.

Then as I hope it will, their tastes returns, then a greater usage of spices and complexity of flavours that involve the mind into re-acquiring the learned tastes may help them to recall their past taste experiences and the emotional messages that they delivered. Spices add complexity into the eating experience as their flavour perception finally returns

The full story is here by Oliver Morrison


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