Why do some things smell better than they taste? And how/can I change that?
May 3, 2011 3:29 PM   Subscribe

When I smell many foods, they nearly always smell better than they taste. Whatever it is smells marvelous but as soon as I pop it in my mouth I wonder where the flavor went. My question is why this might be, whether it is just me, and what I can do, if anything, to improve my sense of "taste".*

This is especially true for things like burgers, hot dogs, and popcorn for some reason, but it's true in general for anything that gives off a smell from a distance (so, for example, things like fruit or vegetables taste better than they smell).

* I'm aware that we're talking actually talking about my sense of smell here.
posted by Deathalicious to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Do other foods taste more robust to you? It's possible that you are an "undertaster," the opposite of a supertaster.
posted by me3dia at 3:37 PM on May 3, 2011

I can see a couple factors at play. First, flavor is composed of two things: smell AND taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.) Taste doesn't come into play until you take a bite so perhaps your sense of smell is being over powered by a taste. Your example foods are all rather salty/nitratey...

Also, the smell component of flavor is triggered on exhalation - try breathing out while chewing to get those olfactory compounds to the right place at the right time.

(and to offer a counterexample to your experience: durian. This foul smelling fruit is considered by some to be delectable, but only as it is consumed.)
posted by m@f at 3:46 PM on May 3, 2011

I don't think it's just you; I am thinking the very same thing at this moment, because someone in my office has (evilly) made caramel popcorn and the smell is almost killing me. I realize it will never taste as good as it smells.

I can't answer the *why* part of your question, but can confirm that it may not be specific to your sense of taste.
posted by Pomo at 3:47 PM on May 3, 2011

Taste and smell aren't really two different senses. The nose can distinguish a LOT more substances than the tongue can.

Make sure you breathe in and out through your nose while you're eating... smells go both directions when food is in your mouth.
posted by empath at 3:47 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go on a fast? I know that when I'm really very hungry foods just taste really great. I'm not trying to be flip, training your responses does work but it takes non-typical patterns.

Go to different tastings events, there is a cheese shop that always has several samples, many I would not buy but it develops the senses.
posted by sammyo at 3:49 PM on May 3, 2011

Some foods always smell better than they taste. That's why so many of us are obsessed with coffee and yet we put all sorts of stuff in our coffee before we drink it. Things like hot dogs and popcorn are both sort of gross and sort of delicious at the same time. I like a lot of what makes them smell incredibly good is the way they remind us of our childhood rather than any kind of inherent goodness that they contain.
posted by foodgeek at 3:52 PM on May 3, 2011

Do you smoke? Smoker friends of mine have remarked that their sense of taste improves tremendously a few weeks after they quit.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:52 PM on May 3, 2011

Is it possible this is your imagination?

I am serious. The foods you described as smelling better than they taste are traditional junk foods. The foods you describe as tasting better than they smell are traditionally less well-liked (well, at least vegetables; work with me here). Is it possible that, when you say the food "smells" really good, what you really mean is that you get very excited to eat it (for whatever psychological reason), imagine it will taste great, and then suffer the inevitable letdown when you taste the food--even if the "smell" hasn't changed?

Obviously I am shooting in the dark, but my point is just that psychology is a big part of taste, independent of the physical sensory mechanisms.
posted by _Silky_ at 4:17 PM on May 3, 2011

2nding the emotional memory aspect of smell. Whenever I pass a backyard charcoal grill, I get a rush of nostalgia. When I actually grill steaks, they rarely live up to my expectations. I associate a lot of happy memories with the smell of popcorn, too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:21 PM on May 3, 2011

I don't know why this is, but it's not unique to you. Whenever I pass roasted-peanut vendors at midtown I am plagued both by the delicious smell and the knowledge that it won't taste very good. Maybe it has something to do with the texture of eating? Or perhaps chewing releases other notes that aren't as nice as the sweet and smoky smell-notes.
posted by pipti at 4:29 PM on May 3, 2011

How long are you smelling the food before you eat it?

I get this sometimes if I smell the foods for too long before I eat them. One vivid example was making BBQ ribs with dry rub. I smelled that rub for hours and after the ribs got off the grill they didn't taste as great as they smelled. After a walk outside, I had the ribs again and this time, they were amazing!
posted by astapasta24 at 5:51 PM on May 3, 2011

Or maybe rather than an "undertaster," you ARE a "supertaster." Bitterness spoils so many foods for me, ones that smell fabulous but taste horrible to me. Slight flavors that most everyone around me can't detect can make or break foods for me. (And I assure you that's not my imagination; my husband, for example, will keep eating the shredded cheese when I can not only smell, but SEE the green mold on it. He can't taste it.)
posted by galadriel at 6:11 PM on May 3, 2011

With hot dogs, burgers and popcorn, the smells that you're finding so enticing are the smells that are given off in the cooking process, including the smells of the parts of the food that get overcooked. So the smells of the bits of burnt meat that stay on the grill contribute to the intensity of the aroma. Also, that smell in the air comes from the volatile chemicals that were created and driven off in the cooking process; if they've been driven off, they are no longer present in the same amount in the food when you eat it, so it's natural that it would be less flavorful in your mouth. The piece of fruit, on the other hand, wasn't having its flavor depleted by wafting it away in cooking fumes--it's all sealed up in its little package (until it gets overripe).

Also, with processed foods, there are sometimes chemicals added for the specific purpose of enhancing scent (sorry, I don't have a citation for that at hand, but I read it "somewhere").
posted by Corvid at 6:34 PM on May 3, 2011

I'm this way too. It's always warm foods that do it - things that are cooking or that have just been cooked or heated. Warmth releases smells. (On preview, what Corvid said.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:36 PM on May 3, 2011

Thanks for the responses everyone.

I'm not a smoker and I'm pretty sure I'm neither a supertaster nor undertaster. Plenty of foods are flavorful for me, including foods that most people might describe as "tasteless" (a prime example is raw tofu, which I love the taste of).

There's plenty of junk food that tastes to me as flavorful as it smells -- good potato chips, for example (not the crappy variety overloaded with powders).

I'm also fairly certain it's not a nostalgic thing. Hot dogs are a prime example. I was vegetarian for much of my life and grew up with veggie dogs, but everytime I smelled a hot dog vendor's cart I was so tempted to try a real beef hot dog. And then, when I first tasted one, what a disappointment! Totally flavorless. I can enjoy a good dog now (with everything), but it never matches the smell of the thing.

There are plenty of nostalgic things which taste just as good as they smell -- for example, fresh baked cookies or my mother's fish soup.

One of my favorite food smells, bar none, is browning hamburger meat. I have no idea why, but it always smells wonderful. And it pretty much always tastes meh. Which might be why I actually prefer the taste of nearly raw burgers, but love the smell of well-done ones.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:07 PM on May 3, 2011

The hot dog thing blows my mind. Hot dogs are so salty I can't even conceive of describing them as flavorless. (And yes, I'm salivating right now. I loooove hot dogs.)

Maybe it's a salt thing? Unsalted/unseasoned hamburger is pretty bland, as is popcorn, and hot dogs have pretty much no other flavor. Do you like salty stuff? Do you add a lot of salt to your food?
posted by restless_nomad at 9:20 PM on May 3, 2011

Don't use any addtional salt.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:33 PM on May 3, 2011

I'm gonna go with what Corvid and Metroid Baby said.

This happens to me too. I've always thought that fried eggs smell much better than they taste. Not that I think they taste horrible or anything, just relatively less delicious than they smell.

This seems to bug me less as I get older, though.
posted by junques at 9:36 PM on May 3, 2011

It is definitely not just you. I love the smell of dill pickles. They smell so delicious, if they come on the side at a restaurant I love to smell them. But I hate the taste. I don't know why either... I love vinegary things like vinaigrettes and mustards. In fact, the only pickled food I like is pickled ginger.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:45 PM on May 3, 2011

The hot dog thing blows my mind. Hot dogs are so salty I can't even conceive of describing them as flavorless

Saltiness and flavor are two different things in my mind.

It is definitely not just you. I love the smell of dill pickles.

Ha ha, pickles are one of the things that taste as good as they smell for me.

I'm going to try the inhale/exhale thing while eating from now on; hopefully that will help.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:31 AM on May 4, 2011

It happens to me too. Especially with ben and jerrrys when they make the waffle bowls. Waffle bowls for ice cream smell better being made then they taste.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:46 AM on May 4, 2011

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