The Importance Of Smell In Food

Over the last three years, many of us can recall what it was like not to have the benefit of one of life's joys: smell (thank you, COVID-19). Many reported the complete loss of smell (per Healthline), perhaps to the point that cooking with your mouth or nose was out of the question.

The smell is and has always been, a vital part of the human constitution. In primordial times, it was key to survival as it helped the early biped detect danger in food, animals, plants, and enemies, along with staying alive and sensing replication value, per a 2009 article published in the Journal of Medicine and Life. As a testimony to this, there are approximately four million olfactory cells in the human nose, and the early humans in Africa were able to smell more than some humans today, per research by the University of Manchester (via ScienceDaily).

Today many of those smell-dependent primal triggers are still in place and function without us willing them to. For example, smell is hardwired into our memories and can actuate emotion, per Henry Ford Health. More importantly, it is the reason for a large part of our relationship with food. Here is why.

The importance of smell in food

As an omnivorous species, the importance of the olfactory senses exceeds mere pleasure and enjoyment; it was vital on an evolutionary level in that it helped us navigate our rather complex diets historically, per Fine Dining Lovers. Humans, drawing their nutrition from meat and plants, relied heavily on smell to guide them around from toxic food sources, and to those that were safe for consumption.

Today humans are not as dependent on smell to guide us around dangerous food sources thanks to information at our disposal, like sell-by dates, but one thing that remains the same is our reliance on it for taste. While the latter is no longer a secret, what may be a surprise is what percentage of our taste is smell reliant. 

According to Dr. Caroline Wood (via Food Unfolded), up to 95% of our sense of taste is due to smell. While the smell of food entering the nostrils, using the orthonasal route, creates the urge to eat, food odor's bigger role occurs while we are eating, as it uses the retronasal passage (up the back of the throat), allowing us the sensation of flavor. Through these two means, smell — not only influences or helps — but determines our ability to taste food.