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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some tips to increase the flavor of your foods:
American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
International Food Information Council Foundation
Dieticians of Canada
Bromley S. Smell and taste disorders: A primary care approach. Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(2):427-436.
Smell & taste. American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/smell-taste. Accessed March 10, 2016.
Smell and taste disorders. Johns Hopkins Medicine website. Available at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/otolaryngology/smell_and_taste_disorders_chemosensory_disorders_85,P00466. Accessed March 10, 2016.
What are taste buds? Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/kids/taste-buds.html. Updated October 2013. Accessed March 10,2016.
Zinc. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated December 15, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2016.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/10/2016