Fortunately, things are changing. Anosmia is getting a face.
On February 25 and 26, 2017, the first SmellTaste event in the US (link) will take place with workshops, lectures, discussions and social events around smell and taste disorders. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, anosmics founded the Fifth Sense, which provides information about and support for anosmics in the UK.
The Monell Chemical Senses Center in the US is, according to their website, “the world’s only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to interdisciplinary basic research on the senses of taste and smell.” Worldwide, few studies have been done on the subject of anosmia, and if there have, they mostly concern acquired anosmia. This is changing too. Monell will start a study on congenital anosmics this spring.
Since 2012, anosmia even has an Awareness Day: February 27, backed by both Fifth Sense and Monell. Learn more about the initiative on the Facebook page. There are several Facebook pages for anosmics, for example here.
Earlier I promised to say a bit more about the trigeminal nerve, the third important element when tasting food (besides the taste buds and sensory cells). This nerve senses sensations such as warmth, coolness, and sharpness. Eating mint, for example, gives the sensation of cool air, even though the air you inhale when eating that mint remains the same.
With the sensory cells lacking, in many cases the trigeminal nerve plays a bigger role. It is the reason why some of us are oversensitive to spicy food. While some love it, arguing that without hot spices their food has no taste at all, in others, including myself, these nerves are so sensitive that they register nothing but unpleasant, even painful, prickles.
I was not aware of this sensitivity as such until my partner and I started traveling in Asia. During one of our first meals, the fish and vegetables were so hot they could have melted steel, even though I mixed them with whopping quantities of white rice. We had been invited to dinner and were in the company of other people. I felt uncomfortable not honoring the hospitality shown to us and tried again. I took a bite of green vegetables, not realizing they were filled with whole, tongue-searing peppers. I became rigid with pain. For a week I was in agony. My mouth was throbbing with pain and filled with blisters. My tongue, my gums and lips were inflamed to the extent that brushing my teeth and even drinking water were painful for at least a week.
I remember a history lesson in school where I heard the story of kings who feared people would poison their food to kill them. And so they had tasters, who would try the food and be the ones to drop dead if it were poisoned. I don’t fear poison; I do fear hot food. Ever since that evening, when I am in a situation where food may be spicy, Coen, my partner, tastes all the dishes on the table. He will comment with a ‘yes, good to go’, a definite ‘no’, or ‘maybe, try a tiny bit.’ I may not have a sense of smell, but I do have a personal taster!
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões CC BY