A few weeks ago, I contracted COVID. It was no weekend at Disneyland, but perhaps thanks to 3 jabs in the arm, I mostly escaped with just a bit of congestion and fatigue… but… the novel symptom for me… was the loss of smell, and I immediately realized… it felt almost perfectly equivalent to going colorblind.
So today on Chromaphobe, I put together some thoughts on how COVID and Color Vision Deficiency… are essentially the same thing… in a totally hyperbolistic SENSE. Speaking of sense, let’s talk about your senses.
When you eat, you are experiencing 3 very different… dimensions of the food. The first is the mouthfeel: the crunch, the chewiness, the texture. The second are the 5 tastes… those detected by your tongue – the sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami… and the third… comes from the countless flavors you detect through your nose.
As opposed to the blunt instrument THAT IS YOUR TONGUE… your nose can detect up to 1 trillion different flavors, and these provide the complex profiles of garlic bread, a banana or a Pinot Noir…. huh…
Normally, the mouthfeel, taste and flavor all come together in gastronomical harmony. Bacon without that harmony would be sustenance, and we know bacon is so much more than sustenance.
So when I got COVID, I lost that third dimension: flavor. I could still feel the food’s texture and my tongue still worked fine, but I could not smell a damn thing. Even overpowering scents like a bottle of menthol or my kid’s smelly diaper trash can were… absent. This complete lack of smell is called ANOSMIA.
If you’ve seen more than a few videos on this channel, you know where this is going. Human color vision typically uses 3 cones that lead to 3 dimensions of color vision:
- The first giving a measure of lightness
- The second giving a measure of red vs. green…
- And the third giving a measure of blue vs. yellow.
A strong form of color vision deficiency called dichromacy – which includes protanopia (my variety) – usually arises from completely losing one of these dimensions, thus the common name, red-green colorblind.
So in each condition – dichromacy or anosmia – you are switching from a typical 3-dimensional sensory space, to a 2-dimensional one. Now I know… that’s a bit of an academic definition, so let’s break that down.
If a color normal person – a TRICHROMAT – were to suddenly become a DICHROMAT, colors that used to be distinct, like blue and purple, now become METAMERS. Metamers are colors that may have different spectral light content behind them, but that look identical to a given observer.
When we talk about metamers in the context of colorblindness, we are actually talking about COLORS OF CONFUSION or CONFUSION PAIRS, which are metamers to colorblind people, but distinct to color normals. For example, while blue and purple may seem distinct to you, if you are color normal, I often collectively call them, BLURPLE, because they are essentially the same color to me.
…So to extend that concept, metameric food would be any two things that have different chemical compositions, but cannot be distinguished by a given taster.
So… when I lost my smell, I was curious, what foods would essentially become metamers to me? This should include any foods that typically have the same mouthfeel and the same taste, but differ in flavor. So here’s what I came up with:
- Juices all taste the same since they have the same texture and sweetness, differing slightly in sourness.
- Daddy juice, AKA dry red wine pretty much tasted like water, which…. was so off putting, I ended up pouring it out, but leave it to COVID, to turn wine in water… like… inverted Jesus.
- Broccoli cream and Asparagus cream soups were identical.
- Lamb just tasted like tender beef when you take away its signature subtle muttony flavor.
- Ricotta and hummus tasted like the same bland paste.
- Uh, Milk also didn’t really differ from water,
Of course, a normal person would never confuse milk for water…
Hey Dalton, say this word three times.
“SILK SILK SILK”
What do cows drink?
Water… Dalton, they drink Water. God I’m juvenile.
But I meant, someone DRINKING milk wouldn’t confuse it for water… because if nothing else… they’ve got eyes. Unless you are specifically giving yourself a BLIND taste test like I was, your brain will SEE that the liquid that tastes like water… is in fact white, and will start to fill in the dairy flavor experience, because… that’s how your mind do. In fact, I didn’t even realize my smell had disappeared until my wife asked me if I noticed a difference because of the COVID… and by that time, it was already, almost completely gone, so who knows for how long my mind had just kept filling in the flavors that it could no longer DETECT, but thought I should still be tasting.
Of course, this contextual effect has an analogy to color vision. The colorblind are very good at using context clues to improve our accuracy on guessing color names, and this is usually done subconsciously. For example, while blue and purple may be metamers and look identical, if someone is wearing an ambiguously blurple shirt in a professional setting, it’s almost certainly blue.
An interesting exception to my eyes guiding my flavor experience… was jelly beans… I bought some jelly beans for my daughter, which obviously means that I get to eat half of them. The jelly beans included a mixture of chocolate, licorice and fruit, which is an Unforgivable crime against the colorblind. We just can’t tell all the critical flavors apart… and let me tell you… grapey licorice is about as appetizing as pineapple and peanut butter… normally anyway… because with the anosmia, all the jelly beans just tasted like the same flat, sweet gelatin and mixing fruit, chocolate and licorice together… wasn’t at all as gross as it usually is.
I noticed some other strange observations with my behavior. I’m normally quite susceptible to cravings as you can probably tell, but during COVID, my cravings for food with strong tastes, like very sweet or salty or especially very spicy went wild. I actually resorted to dousing my salad with hot sauce and salt, because without flavor, a salad is particularly bland. And I’m not alone, salting salads was probably the number one new behaviour reported by Anosmics online.
Actually, the “SMELL AND TASTE TREATMENT AND RESEARCH FOUNDATION” reports that 50% of anosmics gain weight after losing their smell, because they resort to foods rich in fat and sugar in lieu of the foods with a more complex, enjoyable flavor, which they can no longer appreciate.
To get back to the colorblindness analogy, I imagine it’s the same as my attraction – which I’ve talked about in a previous video – to art that is heavily reliant on contrast instead of color, but at least this lovely painting won’t make me any fatter.
Finally, some anosmics describe developing a heightened sense of taste after losing their smell, which makes them more attuned to tiny differences in bitterness or saltiness for example. As one Anosmic put it:
“I could tell you probably down to the nearest grain how much sugar I’ve put into my cup of tea.”
Personally, I noticed that UMAMI, the subtle savory flavor that you get from protein-rich foods, was now the DOMINANT experience when eating cheese.
And guess what, same thing in our colorblind analogy. Colorblind individuals are more adept at determining gradations of contrast – light and dark – than a color normal. Can you still read the letter? Oookay, while this isn’t a diagnostic test for colorblindness – and it depends heavily on your screen – colorblind people will MORE likely be able still read what it says, but I covered that in my video about Schiaparelli – a colorblind astronomer – discovering canals on Mars.
As you can probably reckon from my extensive results, COVID absolutely did NOT dampen my appetite, so it was a really interesting – albeit… depressing – experience to be able to taste foods without flavor and especially to draw all of these parallels to colorblindness.
Some of the facts for this video were pulled from a fantastic article on anosmia and food on seriouseats.com. I’ve put a link in the description, so check that out if you want to get a bit deeper in the science.
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This is Chromaphobe.
“You know, this could be cold urine for all I know.”