Ever bitten into something that you remember eating since childhood and noticing the taste is suddenly wrong? It could be your evolving taste, it could be a change in the recipe, or it could be dysgeusia.
Adult life is rife with disappointments. And not just new ones. Sometimes familiar things that we enjoyed as children – like pixie sticks and twinkies – turn out to be crap when we get older. That’s the best case scenario. Occasionally there is something more sinister at work. Dysgeusia is the sudden alteration in taste, most often not for the better. There are a lot of biological things that can turn taste buds. People naturally lose their perception of bitterness as they age, which is why we get more receptive to slightly-bitter vegetables as adults. Pregnancy can completely change the way we taste things.
Loss or alteration of taste is rarer than alteration of smell, because tastes can travel from the tongue to the conscious brain along several different pathways. Although some of them might be damaged, all of them need to be affected to dramatically change the way we perceive taste.
It also makes it hard to pin down exactly what’s wrong. Once doctors eliminate the obvious stuff, like infections, medications, or dental fillings that leave a bad taste in the mouth, or the terrifying stuff, like tumors big enough to occupy central reasons of the brain, no one exactly knows what body chemistry makes the tongue switch tastes around. Tastes can be extremely varied. People generally become aware of a metallic taste in the mouth all the time. Sometimes they react only to certain flavors. One dysgeusia patient noticed a terrible taste when caraway, cumin, fennel, tarragon, and capers. All were found to have one chemical – caravone – in common. Others an overall skewing of taste.
The ones whose entire palate has changed generally lose weight quickly, sometimes because tastes are bad, but sometimes just because they’re strange. We expect a certain experience when we take a bite of food. If we don’t get it, we’re put off. Broccoli taste might be fine in a salad, but not when biting into a chocolate mousse. Some doctors find that patients with dysgeusia wreck their health in other ways. When one taste, like salt or sugar, is familiar, it can be used to drown out other tastes, and people overuse it.
There’s one possible cause for dysgeusia. Studies have shown mixed results, but it’s so simple that many dysgeusia patients give it a shot. Taking extra zinc can suddenly reverse the condition. Nobody quite knows why, since the only measured difference is an increase in salivary calcium, but some people suddenly snap back to their normal tastes.
Have you ever gone through periods when food tasted off? What did you taste?
Top Image: Sin Syue Li
Second Image: Dennis Tang