Harvard Health Letter

Olfaction subtraction

Loss of smell affects the flavor of food, among other things. Sometimes a short course of anti-inflammatory medication can help bring it back.

Some say that smell, or olfaction, is our most primitive sense. It's certainly one of the most neglected. Many a day goes by when we don't much notice a smell of any kind, while our heads are filled with images from our eyes and sounds from our ears. Indeed, we seem intent on banishing smell from our lives. The typical office is scentless. Our food is wrapped so tightly that many supermarkets smell more of cleaner than of food. And, of course, there's the running battle against body odor that we fight with showers, soap, and deodorants.

But losing our sense of smell proves again that Joni Mitchell was right: you don't know what you've got till it's gone. When people lose their sense of smell, one of the first things they notice is that food becomes less flavorful. Understandably, most think their taste buds have gone dead. But flavor is a tag-team of smell and taste, and when it disappears, loss of smell is more often the main factor.

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