Sensory Nutrition and Disease: NIH Workshop Report and Beyond

Sensory Workshop

In mid-November 2019, the National Institutions of Health (NIH) held the “Sensory Nutrition and Disease” Workshop in Bethesda, Maryland, to engage a diverse group of basic science and clinical researchers at the interface of sensory and nutrition sciences. Their charge was to explore the potential of chemosensory biology—the biology of taste and smell, which together produce the experience of flavor—to influence food preferences and nutrition.

In addition, a small group of friends of Monell gathered for dinner at the nearby home of Marj Rosner, who lost her sense of smell a decade ago, to discuss Monell’s research in smell loss. That dinner began conversations about developing STANA, the Smell and Taste Association of North America. STANA was formed in 2020 as a patient advocacy group supporting people living with smell and/or taste disorders.

Viral and many other illnesses cause loss of smell, which affects the enjoyment of food and how much and when people choose to eat. One of the unusual aspects of COVID-19 is that many people lose both their sense of taste and smell—a combination that was rare before COVID-19. Adding to these deficits, some people with COVID-19 also lose the related sense of chemesthesis, which allows the perception of such sensations as the cooling of menthol, the burn of chili peppers, and the tickle of carbonation.

Danielle ReedJust how this double- or even triple-whammy affects how people eat is not well understood, but researchers and clinicians predict that the effects of COVID-19 sensory losses on health and well-being are likely to be significant. Drawing on the tenants of sensory nutrition, NIH workshop co-organizer Dr. Danielle Reed envisions a time when we know more about the new normal of COVID-19 sensory loss and how to treat it.

Workshop participants and speakers identified gaps and opportunities in the current understanding of how chemosensory biology influences nutrition and disease, including COVID-19, for example,

  • Validating ways to measure taste, smell, and chemesthesis that reflect the complex sensations involved in food choices
  • Adding consistent measures of chemosensation to a broad range of large studies, so that results can be compared, pooled, and analyzed
  • Analyzing differences in chemosensory function among people of different ages, backgrounds, and health conditions
  • Understanding how personal differences affect food choices, overall health, and disease risk

“We have been amassing more and more evidence that chemosensory and nutritional scientists have much to gain by working together,” notes Reed. “The current pandemic has made several of these research gaps more urgent to solve because COVID-19 has direct short- and perhaps long-term effects on flavor perception, nutrition, and quality of life.”

For more, please take a look at the NIH Workshop Report, the Monell COVID-19 Resources page and the Monell Anosmia Project page.