While working in a restaurant as a young adult, Kathryn Morgan realized that her favorite part of the job was talking to diners about what wines they should order from the wine list. Yet, it took her a long time to realize that she could pursue her passion for wine as a profession.
"I was always under the impression that to be a sommelier, one had to be old and French, or have extra taste buds or be born under a lucky star, or have some calling, have somebody deem you and your palate worthy of doing this professionally for a living," said Morgan, now a master sommelier. "And I came to realize that really isn't the case. It may be quite the opposite."
Most people can teach themselves to develop their senses with practice, experts in the chemical senses, food, fragrance and wine agreed at "Smells Delicious and Good to Eat: How Your Brain Distinguishes Tastes and Aromas," a 6 May panel discussion at AAAS.
"I have always have told people, if you like wine, that means that your palate is good enough to develop it to the professional level. Because if you didn't have enough of a sense of taste or a sense of smell, then you wouldn't really care about wine and food," Morgan said. "If you're interested in wine and food, if you love it, then you have a palate."
The discussion, the second of four events in the Neuroscience and Society series organized by AAAS and The Dana Foundation, was followed by a tasting reception and interactive demonstration with perfumes.
One of the scents that attendees could smell during the reception was androstenone, a steroid in boar saliva. In an experiment with participants who could not naturally smell the steroid, researchers found that about half of those who smelled the steroid three times a day for six weeks developed the ability to smell it, said Gary Beauchamp, director, Monell Chemical Senses Center.
"We induced the ability to smell this thing by exposing them to it over and over again," Beauchamp said. "People lose their sense of smell in a whole variety of ways and this may be one technique we can use to train people to exercise their olfactory sense."
During a summer internship at a French perfumery, Joan Marrinan, senior vice president of sales for Fragrance Resources, took a methodical approach to learning different scents. "Initially, the way you learn how to smell is in categories, including floral, citrus, fruits, herbs, woods and musk," she said. "Learning to memorize an odor by associating the note with something else is the best way to learn how to smell. Of course, one must find this process interesting. Imagination plays a huge role in smelling and imagining what combinations of odors would smell like. It truly is a creative process."
Memorizing how tastes work together is a natural part of becoming a chef, said Susan Watterson, co-founder of CulinAerie, a Washington, D.C. cooking school. "You're just constantly tasting stuff as you go so I think you train your palate just by exposure, exposure, exposure," she said. "After a while, you just know in your head how something tastes."
People frequently struggle to differentiate between the senses of smell and taste. People who contact Monell because they believe that they have lost their sense of taste, when it is much more likely that they have lost their ability to smell, Beauchamp said. One reason that people confuse the two senses is because odors are experienced through both ortho-nasal olfaction (sniffing) and retro-nasal olfaction that occurs when one swallows food and the odor travels from the throat to the olfactory receptors.
To experience retro-nasal olfaction, Beauchamp encouraged attendees to hold their noses tightly while eating flavorful food, then let their noses go. "It's like holding the end of a hose," Beauchamp said. "When you hold the end of the hose, water can't go through. When you let go, the water goes through. So when you're holding your nose and you let go, the air comes up from the back of your throat and you get the smell."
Compared to the other senses, olfaction is under-appreciated by many people. "If we think of these five senses and think of what happens when we lose them, even somebody as passionate about the chemical senses as I am would admit that it is much more serious to lose your sense of vision or hearing than it is to lose your sense of smell and taste," Beauchamp said. "But if you think about health, I argue that the health impacts of the chemical senses are much more important because they drive excess consumption of sugar, salt, fat, many other foods — the kinds of things that lead to the diseases of excess."