A homemade chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven. A perfectly sweet-yet-tart glass of lemonade. The first ripe, juicy peach of summer. These are all tastes that we could live without—but we certainly don’t want to.
Our sense of taste can often get us into trouble (Yum! More brownies!), but it also helps keep us healthy. Our taste buds put up the red flag when something’s not safe to eat, (This lunch meat isn’t good anymore!) and motivates us to get enough nutrition. It’s also a huge quality-of-life booster; life would be pretty boring if even our favorite foods all tasted like stale crackers.
A partial loss of our sense of taste, or an altered sense of taste, can be a signal that someone may have diabetes, and loss of taste is more common in those with the condition. Here’s what you need to know about diabetes and your sense of taste:
How taste works
When you eat or drink something, your food releases tiny molecules that stimulate sensory cells in your mouth and throat. These cells (sometimes called gustatory cells), are gathered within the taste buds on your tongue, the roof of your mouth, and your throat lining. A person is born with about 10,000 taste buds but may lose them with age.
When taste cells perceive a taste (Hey! Strawberries!), they send a message via specialized nerve cells designed to send taste signals to the brain. The brain perceives five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (oo-MOM-ee). Umami is a savory flavor from foods that contain glutamate such as chicken broth or meat extracts.
But we perceive foods in much more detail than only five categories could allow. Our sense of smell contributes to how we perceive taste (more on diabetes and sense of smell here). And other specialized nerves in our eyes, nose, mouth, and throat help us perceive things like the coolness of peppermint and the heat of spicy food. Some nerves specialize in detecting temperature and texture. All these senses work together to help us enjoy a sensory-rich flavor experience when we eat.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 15 percent of adults have a taste or smell disorder, but few people seek treatment.
Types of taste disorders
Complete loss of taste is rare, and many causes of altered taste are transient, such as illness or pregnancy. Here are the main types of taste disorders:
- Phantom Taste Perception: An unpleasant taste even when there is nothing in your mouth.
- Hypogeusia: A reduced ability to perceive taste.
- Ageusia: A complete loss of the ability to perceive taste.
- Dysguesia: A foul, salty, or metallic taste that persists in your mouth. This condition may be accompanied by burning mouth syndrome.
Causes of taste disorders
Loss of taste can be a risk factor for diabetes because of the behavioral changes it may cause (adding more sugar or salt to food or eating too much). Altered taste may also cause people to eat too little. Causes of altered taste include:
- Upper respiratory and ear infections
- Some cancer treatments
- Exposure to certain chemicals such as insecticides
- Certain mediations, including some antibiotics, some antihistamines, and Metformin (these usually cause dysguesia)
- Head injuries
- Some ear, nose, or throat surgeries or the removal of wisdom teeth
- Oral hygiene or dental problems
- Colds or flu
- Sinus infection
- Nasal polyps
- Vitamin B12 or zinc deficiency
- Nervous system disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Bell’s palsy
The link to diabetes
Diabetes can increase your risk of altered taste, and diabetic neuropathy may play a role by damaging the nerves that perceive and interpret taste. High blood sugar may also contribute to transient loss of taste. Altered taste in people with diabetes may also be caused by a change or loss of sense of smell, which affects someone’s ability to perceive taste.
How to treat altered or lost taste
Taste and smell disorders should be diagnosed by an ear, nose, and throat doctor (an ENT or otolaryngologist). An ENT can determine the extent of smell and/or taste loss and identify root causes. Treatment may include changing medications or correcting an underlying problem (such as allergies).
Someone dealing with altered sense of taste should try to eat a variety of foods with varying colors and textures to see which ones they can enjoy. Instead of loading up on salt and sugar to increase taste, try herbs and spices that can add and enhance flavor without compromising nutrition. Seek strongly flavored foods and try to avoid food where everything melds together, like casseroles, which mask individual flavors
Our sense of taste is easy to take for granted until it’s gone. If you are experiencing taste loss, check with your doctor to see if there is an underlying cause that can be addressed. Life has so much flavor to offer… we hope you’re able to experience as much as possible!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.