Taste: It’s In Your Ear

“What’s that you say? Let’s put beans in our ears…”

It’s been a bad year for colds. There always seems to be some green goo to wipe off someone’s face and endless hands to wash. 

The common cold is something most (if not all) of us are familiar with. Sinuses seem to work overtime producing highly contagious gunk that finds its way into the nose, throat and ears and makes us feel just generally tired and miserable.

mouth

Back in January, my friend came down with a doozy of a cold, the kind that finds its way into every sinus nook and cranny. Excessive mucous accumulating in the back of her nose prevented retronasal airflow into her nasal cavity. I found it intriguing how congestion had altered her senses, and changed her preferences and perceptions of food.

“I can breathe comfortably through the front sinuses, there is still a load of crap in the back that won’t budge. That is what is affecting things. I gag on the post nasal drip. I can smell my orange and spice hand soap. The cooking pancakes are overwhelming and it’s going to take me a few minutes to want to eat them.”

Nose

TJ, like many selective eaters, has a different sense of smell and taste. A large percentage of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Inhaling airborne aromas (created by chewing) through the back of the mouth and up into the nasal cavity is what allows us to detect flavour.

Some smells, however are potent enough to permeate even through a congested nose into the nasal cavity through the nostrils.

“I just cooked an egg in the microwave for the babies for lunch. It smells like the world’s most horrible fart. Apparently the sulphur smell still gets through. Who the hell wants to eat farts?”

Mouth

If you’ve ever been congested with a cold, you likely noticed that food tasted differently, sometimes even unappetizing. We detect the tastes of salty, sweet, bitter and sour on our tongue, but without smell, the flavour of food is noticeably absent.

“Just had some sour cream and onion popcorn. I normally love this stuff… however there are key parts of the flavour missing. Like listening to a favourite piece of music with half the notes missing.”

On average, the human tongue has between 2,000 – 8,000 taste buds. Contrary to popular belief, taste detection is not localized to specific areas of the tongue. The tongue also detects texture, temperature and pain.

“I seem to enjoy things that I taste at the front and the sides of the mouth. Cinnamon seems to activate the sweet receptors for some reason. It also tastes normal. Foods that are sweet, and cinnamon and salty are immediate gratification.”

Many selective eaters claim to be supertasters, characterized as having an abundance of taste buds. Not all supertasters, however, are selective eaters. Most selective eaters share a preference for salty tastes such as french fries and potato chips and tend to prefer energy dense foods like fats and carbohydrates.

Selective eaters are very sensitive to bitter tastes and often have strong aversions to most vegetables.

“Coffee has lost most of it’s robust and loving flavour as well. It tastes old. It smells ok, what gets through. However, no matter how freshly brewed, it tastes like it’s been sitting in the pot all day.”

Ears

The congestion also affected my friend’s hearing, creating intermittent periods of muffled sounds, followed by periodic crackling and popping. Not uncommon with a cold, but I’m sure you’re asking. What on earth do ears have to do with our sense of taste?

My knowledge of ear anatomy is limited at best, but I do know the ear canals and sinus cavities are all somehow connected. Interestingly, the ear is where we find one particular nerve that has a profound effect on taste nerves and the pain fibers on the tongue.

chorda tympani

Yale University School of Medicine – VII facial nerve

The Chorda Tympani branches from the facial nerve and runs through the middle ear, carrying special sensory fibers that extend to the front two-thirds of the tongue, communicating taste information to the brain. The chorda tympani innervates the fungiform papillae (taste buds) on the tongue, recognizing the tastes of salty and to a lesser extent sweet.

“The chorda tympani is responsible for the taste perception on the front of the tongue. If that nerve becomes damaged, tastes at the back of the tongue actually get enhanced to preserve overall “taste constancy.” But other cues that go into our sensory experience of flavor, including texture, smells and chemical sensitivity, are also enhanced.” ~ Derek Snyder, Yale University neuroscience graduate student

The results of research seeking to compare taste perception with overall health in adults had some unexpected results.  A history of middle ear infections (otitis media) in childhood appears to contribute to a more energy-dense diet and a preference for fatty and creamy foods. This study from Nova Scotia health data also noted an unexplained connection between frequent treatment for otitis media and a higher body mass index in Grade 5 students.

Fatty, creamy, energy-dense foods. Pasta, pizza, mashed potato, french fries, chicken nuggets, mac n’ cheese… This is not the selective eater diet, but at least one of these is likely a dietary staple for a large majority of selective eaters.

I couldn’t find any research investigating a connection between selective eating and middle ear infections in childhood, however, when a small sample of adult selective eaters were asked if they had middle ear issues, 27 out of 34 respondents reported they had suffered from some form of middle ear issue in early childhood. 

While research investigates the possible connection that middle ear infections are making us fat, I find it oddly curious that a disproportionate amount of selective eaters report middle ear infections occurring either prior to or concurrently with the onset of their issues with food.

“What am I eating? Carbs. Sweets. Things I CAN taste. Cheese is a rubber blob and everything else might as well be styrofoam. I can taste chocolate and cookies and things. I’m not looking forward to the pancakes that my husband is making for dinner. All I can taste from a Coke is sweet. It’s not that exciting, being just sweet water that stings the tongue.”

Touch

It’s often reported that when one sense is lost, other senses compensate. Without a sense of smell, my friend became much more aware of food textures. I finally found the answer to why TJ likes some sweet crunchy foods and not others.

Apples are crunchy at the front of the mouth and are sweet right away. They also soften quickly. I can taste an apple. Carrots you have to chew at the back of the mouth and you have to work to get the sweet. I can’t taste them. They’re also harder and more likely to hurt your teeth/make you choke.”

Eating became akin to a game of pin the tail on the donkey, dizzy and without sight, trying to locate a specific point on a picture. Foods that were once enjoyed were now being experienced without the senses my friend was used to processing eating with.

“Meat feels… weird. Just, weird. We’ve ordered pizza twice since I’ve had this, I’ve had a slice both times. A single slice. I can taste mushrooms, but the texture is really odd.”

Sensory 

We use sight, hearing, touch and balance to navigate through the world. Why not taste?

“I had this wonderful sandwich for lunch, or it would have been under normal circumstances. Prosciutto, capicola, provolone, red pepper, on a crusty roll, broiled. The bread had no flavour. It was just crusty and hurt my mouth. The pepper sort of came through and the cheese felt like rubber. The prosciutto was salty but left a greasy coating on my palate, which was then ripped to shreds by the crusty bread.”

If we use balance and touch to navigate through our environment and know where our limbs are in relation to the rest of our body, do we use our sense of taste the same way? If our senses of smell and taste are impaired, do certain textures help us sense where food is in the mouth, how to chew it, how “safe” it is to eat?

Fear and Anxiety

My friend is a grown adult and has experienced a wide variety of food in that time. She knows the discomfort and strange sensations she experienced with a temporary illness is just that. Temporary.

Imagine a young child having this same experience with food for the first time in their eating career.  I can certainly see where fear and anxiety come into play with selective eating.

If the sensory connection from the tongue to the brain is diminished or damaged, it would be much more difficult to be aware of the location of food in your mouth. Are food particles in the path of your airway? Has the food been chewed enough and shaped appropriately to be swallowed easily? My friend’s experience makes me appreciate what a nightmare eating must be for the sensory challenged child, and what might explain the commonly reported reflexes of gagging, choking and vomiting.

TJ was almost 5 years old before the large chunk of debris embedded in his ear canal since birth was removed. It was never an issue until he was congested and his ears filled with fluid (just behind the eardrum), and lose hearing. Repeatedly. Could TJ have had periods where he lost his sense of smell with his allergies at a formative point in building his eating skills? It could explain the episodes of choking. It also helps me understand why his aversion to meat and vegetables is so fierce and why it has persisted for so long.

What do you think? Can middle ear infections in childhood affect our future taste preferences?

And you can thank the Serendipity Singers for Beans in My Ears.

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3 responses to “Taste: It’s In Your Ear

  1. I just learned about this last night while reading a magazine. Since I woke up early still thinking about it, I figure it was time to look into it more. I suffered from chronic ear infections as a kid, through my teen years, and as an adult, I still get ear infections. I was always a heavier child, but it wasn’t until 5th grade that I just ballooned (just like your research suggests). It’s been an endless battle since then. I’ve also felt despairingly frustrated that I can never seem to feel full, no matter what kind of effort or mindfulness I put into it. I also use salt more than anyone else I know. This idea really helps to put some of my own puzzle pieces together to make some things in my life make much more sense. Looks like I need to start paying more attention to my other senses to make up for the lost taste.
    Thank you for your article!

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