PopSci is spending September relearning how to eat. As intuitive as our love of chowing down is, a lot stands between us and optimal eating. This month, we’ll break down diet myths, unlock delicious kitchen hacks, and explore our most common misconceptions about our grub.
Eating is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences we get to have. Getting a whiff of your favorite dish, or taking a single bite of your go-to dessert can instantly flood you with emotion—happiness, comfort, utter joy.
If you think it can’t get better than that, think again: You can actually boost your senses by teaching yourself to detect and identify more odors and flavors. Even if you lose some of your sensitivity due to age, allergies, or viruses, keep in mind you can always get some of it back with work, patience, and a lot of sniffing. It might take a bit of practice, but it’s not hard to do, and it definitely won’t take as long as you think.
“You’re not gonna become the most acute smeller or taster in a week,” says Pam Dalton, a senior chemosensory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “But we see sensitivity changes both up and down in the course of a week.”
The intimate relationship between taste and smell
Your mouth’s location right under to your nose makes your olfactory and taste systems closely intertwined. So much so that they usually work in tandem. This is because of our ability to smell both externally (orthonasal) and internally (retronasal).
First, there’s the sniffing we do with our noses. Any time you move your snout near a flower or a steamy plate of french fries, you breathe molecules in through your nostrils, pulling them up to the olfactory epithelium. This is a patch of smell receptors that convert stimuli into signals that travel along the olfactory tract on their way to the brain.
But there’s a shortcut to the olfactory epithelium. Our nose and mouth are connected by our airways, meaning bits of everything we chew and swallow take an expressway directly to that very sensitive bouquet of smell receptors as we swallow.
“Most people, when they eat or drink something, think of that whole sensation as being taste when in fact a huge amount of it is really due to the odor,” says Dalton, who explains that up to 80 percent of what we experience when we chow down is olfactory stimuli and not flavor.
All of the methods on the list below are good for boosting both your sense of smell and sense of taste depending on how you use them. Still, if you only choose to work on one, you might as well focus your efforts on your smell receptors.
“Our taste system is limited in the qualities of taste, it can give us sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Whereas the olfactory system can give us literally 100,000 different odor qualities, so it’s much more complex,” says Dalton.
But before you embark on the journey of boosting your senses, you should know there’s only so much you can do to improve your sense of taste and smell. No matter how much you try, you won’t end up with a hound-level sniffer because we’re limited by our individual bodies— what Dalton calls your “hardware.”
Sadly, you can’t go to the store and buy a nose with more olfactory receptors in it, or a tongue with a higher sensitivity to flavors. What you can do is update your software, in other words, rewire your brain to identify sensory stimuli more easily.
Keep a journal
Taking notes is one of the easiest things you can do to enhance your sense of smell and taste, and it requires you to get a notebook—a win-win.
Start by taking breaks in your day-to-day life to stop and pay attention to the smells around you. Close your eyes, inhale, and try to identify them. As soon as you do, pull out your smell journal and describe what you smelled (good or bad) with as much detail as you can. Becoming more aware of the scents that generally blur into the background of our routines will help your brain label them more easily the next time they come around.
[Related: One notebook could replace all the productivity apps that have failed you]
You can do the same with food. Whenever you eat something you didn’t prepare, close your eyes and try to identify all the elements you’re tasting and describe them. And if you detect something and don’t know what it is, ask a waiter or the chef about it. This will help you understand new flavors and broaden the range of elements you can detect. If you’re eating something you made or helped prepare, try going through the ingredients list in your head as you try to identify all the flavors.
Jiyoon Han, a master sniffer and co-founder of Bean & Bean, a coffee roasting company in New York City, goes even further.
“Taste as many kinds of different foods and beverages. If I have never tasted tropical fruits like lychees, for example, I would not be able to associate a certain taste or smell with lychees,” she says. In her experience, being curious and trying new cuisines and foods has helped her as a cupper—a professional coffee taster.
Writing down your description of a smell or taste, how it made you feel, its source, intensity, and any other thing that might have caught your attention, helps you turn your experience into a more concrete memory. Whenever there’s the intention to record something—especially in handwriting—you reinforce the mental connection with it.
Reset your senses
Your childhood home has a distinct smell. You probably didn’t realize it when you lived there, but after you moved out, every time you visit it hits you like a hammer the moment you open the front door.
“The nose works pretty well in dynamic environments—it is a difference detector,” Dalton says. “The reason we adapt and we don’t smell something for more than 30 seconds to a minute usually, is because it’s supposed to tell us what changes, not what’s always the same.”
Our noses get desensitized to an odor they’ve been smelling for a while, which can be a problem if you’re out tasting wine, or if your job requires you to have a distinctly acute nose. Whenever you feel scents around you are becoming dull, give yourself something strong or familiar to smell so you can reset your sniffer. This is why you’ll find tiny pots with coffee grounds in perfume stores—smelling one of those while surrounded by a cacophony of odors is the equivalent of standing in the middle of a loud crowd and having everyone shut up at once except for one person.
But you won’t find tiny coffee bowls everywhere. This is where your own scent comes in. Smelling your own body odor, which is the most familiar smell you can possibly sniff, will help you shut down every other smell and focus on one thing. This is a technique perfumers and sommeliers use on the regular, so their noses don’t get overwhelmed in the middle of tasting. The best way to do this is to bury your nose in the inside of your elbow and take a couple of drags. Instant olfactory reboot.
When it comes to taste, you’ll need a palate cleanser—neutral-flavored foods that help you reset your taste buds for a new dish. Depending on what you’re eating, you can opt for things like crackers, citrusy sorbet, and even pickled ginger.
Han says this is exactly what coffee cuppers do prior to cupping. “I will have a bland meal before or in between cuppings, and avoid spicy food or food and drinks with stimulating flavors,” she explains.
Still, considering how much of your culinary experience actually depends on your nose, it wouldn’t hurt to reset your olfactory system too before your next course.
Keep it hot and moist
Our noses work better when it’s warm and the air has a certain level of humidity. In very cold, dry air, our sniffers don’t operate very well. Researchers are not so sure why this is, but they think maybe it has to do with our boogers.
“We have enzymes in our nasal mucus that can break down odorant molecules—that’s one of their functions,” Dalton explains. “But they can also trap and hold onto odors so that you can continue to smell something even though you’re no longer in that environment because they just keep reattaching to the receptors.”
This is a double-edged sword and can negatively affect your ability to identify odors that are actually around you.
Dalton says scents are also not as cooperative in dry and cold environments, as molecules aren’t very volatile in those conditions.
It’s no surprise that the healthier you are, the better you’ll be able to smell and taste. Following the hardware analogy, this is the equivalent of keeping your laptop up to date and servicing it when it needs a professional touch.
[Related: Pleasant scents might help you quit smoking]
All pollutants irritate your smell receptors and can negatively affect your ability to identify odors. Since smoking delivers pollutants right into your airways, your best bet is to stay away from it. Dalton says there’s still research to be done on whether vaping has a similar effect, but she says people who have quit smoking report enjoying flavors much more.
If you want to have a professional sniffer, do as the professionals do: train.
“Perfumers spend a couple of years doing nothing but smelling single molecules and then putting them into more and more complex mixtures until they can understand how to deconstruct something very complex,” says Dalton.
Before you try analyzing the bergamot accents and patchouli notes of your favorite perfume though, you can aim for something simpler by playing around with essential oils. A couple of times a week, sit down with an array of smells, close your eyes and sniff each one separately using small whiffs for no more than 30 seconds. Think about the smell, describe it, and internalize it. You can then test yourself and see if you can identify the scents without looking at the bottles. In no time, you’ll be able to label the components of mixtures using two or more essential oils. When you’re comfortable, make sure you challenge yourself using more complex compounds.
When it comes to taste, you can apply the same principle. Start by tasting known dishes while blocking your olfactory system—a nose clip will be your best friend. You won’t disable your ability to smell internally, but at least you’ll be able to dull the stimuli enough to isolate flavor as much as possible. This will allow you to enhance your taste buds and experience food and drink in a totally different way.
Dalton says our senses of smell and taste are malleable, so no matter when you start, you can always teach your brain to do new tricks.