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When Food Doesn't Taste Good

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If you don't enjoy your favorite foods as much as you used to, it may be time to see your doctor. Strange as it seems, your problem may lie in your nose or mouth. Seemingly flavorless food can result from either a diminished sensation of smell or taste, but usually not both.

In fact, the loss of smell is actually more common than loss of taste. Even when food seems to become less flavorful, the ability to sense the basic four tastes—salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—often remains intact.

Certain medical conditions, medications, and a lack of certain nutrients can all contribute to decreased senses of smell and taste.

Tasty Team Work

Smell and taste work as a team to allow for the sensation of flavors. With one sensation diminished, the flavor experience can be entirely different.

Think of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, for example. Nerves in the nose sense the airborne molecules released from the odor-causing agents in the cookies. After the molecules drift up to the nose or are drawn up through breathing or sniffing, the detected odor is sent to the smell area of the brain.

The average adult has 10,000 taste buds coating the tongue's surface, all of which are responsible for the sensation of taste. Taste buds on the tip of the tongue detect sweetness; bitterness is detected by the back taste buds, while the side taste buds detect salt and sour tastes.

Taste receptors send nerve impulses to the taste center of the brain. The brain then uses both the taste and smell sensations to distinguish the flavors you recognize.

Medical Conditions

Simple tastes such as salty, sweet, sour, and bitter can be detected without smell, but the more complicated flavors—like the rich, velvety sensation of a mixture of chocolate chips, walnuts, butter, and brown sugar—require the sensations of both smell and taste to be fully appreciated.

Some common medical conditions, such as sinus infections, nasal polyps, upper respiratory infections, and allergies can trigger a loss of smell and an altered ability to taste.

Other medical problems that may affect smell include head trauma, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Even certain dental conditions can affect taste perception. Gingivitis, tooth infections, and periodontal disease can leave enough of an unpleasant taste in your mouth to disrupt normal taste perception.

Medications

Using prescription medications typically increases with age. Many commonly prescribed medications have the potential to alter taste perception due either to their own bad taste or the potential to cause a dry mouth.

Certain protease inhibitors, which are used to treat HIV infection, have also been shown to modify taste perception. These protease inhibitors are predominantly bitter tasting, but patients also report an astringent, metallic, sour, and burning taste. Antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, have a bitter and unpleasant taste and lead to dry mouth.

If medications are causing dry mouth, your doctor may be able to prescribe a different one. In order to help manage dry mouth, artificial "saliva" is available by prescription. Drinking enough water also helps dry mouth disorders.

Diet/Nutrients

A deficiency of certain nutrients, such as zinc, can foster altered taste perception. Foods that contain significant amounts of zinc include meat, fish, poultry, milk, whole grains, nuts, and lentils.

Flavoring for "Tasteless" Food

Here are some tips to increase the flavor of your foods:

  • Perk up flavors by using herbs, spices, and lemon juice.
  • Texture adds to the pleasure of food, so add some crunch to meals. Try crushed crackers, chopped nuts, or toppings made with uncooked oat cereal.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Smoking impairs your sense of taste and smell.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery
http://www.entnet.org

International Food Information Council Foundation
http://www.ific.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Dieticians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

References

Bromley S. Smell and taste disorders: A primary care approach. Am Fam Physician. 2000;61:427-36.

Smell & taste. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/smell-taste. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Smell and taste disorders (chemosensory disorders). Johns Hopkins Medicine website. Available at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/otolaryngology/smell_and_taste_disorders_chemosensory_disorders_85,P00466/. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Zinc. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated August 2013. Accessed May 16, 2014.



Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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