Parosmia and Coffee - Everything You Need to Know
Olfactory disorders can drain away the joy of eating and drinking delicious foods, just through smell loss. Without sensing the vibrant aroma compounds that come from our favorite beverages, we lose much of the flavor too. Did you know that some researchers have claimed that up to 95% of what we taste is actually a result of olfactory receptors in the nose?1
But it gets worse. Some smell disorders, like parosmia, can actually turn a pleasant smell into an unpleasant or even disgusting experience.
Unfortunately, coffee is one of the most common triggers.
In this article, we'll be explaining why parosmia affects the flavor of your coffee, what you can do to treat it, and a great coffee alternative to try in the meantime.
What is Parosmia?
Parosmia is a condition that impacts your sense of smell. For some people with parosmia, pleasant smells are simply duller... but for many, parosmia can actually turn something that has a nice aroma into a completely rancid smell.
In non-parosmic participants, studies have found that it's the olfactory receptor neurons in your nose that "tells" your brain how food smells. Molecular triggers fire these neurons, which send signals to the olfactory bulb which tells your brain if a food smells good, bad, sour, fruity, meaty, rotten, etc.
In people with parosmia, aroma molecules trigger the olfactory receptor however damage to the neurons sends the wrong signals to your brain, thus your sense of smell is distorted.
If you are unaware that you have parosmia, you may believe that you're being served distorted foods or rotten meals, as you interpret a good smell as a bad smell.2
Causes of Parosmia
There are several reasons why you may experience parosmia. Many people have become aware of olfactory disorders due to COVID-19 (read more about this below) but it's not a new phenomena and there has been much research into what causes it and what treatment may be effective.
Common causes of parosmia include:
- Head injury, e.g. bashing your head in an accident,
- Brain injury, e.g. seizure,
- Bacterial or viral infection, e.g. a cold,
- Cigarette smoke and toxins, e.g. air pollution,
- Radiation and chemotherapy,
- Neurological conditions and tumors.
If you experience the symptoms of parosmia (distorted aromas, and nausea when eating or drinking as a result) your doctor may want to use an MRI scan or sinus CT to check for tumor or neurological problems that could be the cause.
In most cases, however, a head injury or minor illness is usually to blame.
COVID-19 Taste and Smell Loss
Post-COVID parosmia is the phenomenon that has brought more awareness of this condition. There have been reports of both short-term and long-term distorted perception of aromas and certain foods both during and after a COVID-19 infection.
While our understanding of the change in olfactory perception after COVID-19 is still developing, most doctors have noted that the parosmia is not permanent and eventually your sense of smell and taste will return.
In the meantime, people with parosmia are begrudgingly getting on with their lives and attempting to eat and drink around the aromas that are perceived as disgusting.
The smell and taste of coffee is one of the most revolting for many people. Comparisons have been made to rotting meat and sewage.3 Some people with parosmia have found that the more the food is roasted or processed (roasted coffee beans, fried eggs, bacon, etc.) to make it brown and tasty to most people, the worse it smells for people with a distorted sense of smell.4
Parosmia: Coffee vs Tea
Coffee is one of the most common triggers, creating unpleasant smells from sewage to burning rubbish. The disgust experienced after sniffing a cup of coffee can be particularly frustrating, especially if you cannot wake up in the morning without your double espresso ready and waiting.
Giving up coffee - unwillingly - may be more difficult than giving up a particular food due to parosmia. The energy that coffee provides, not to mention the ritual and comfort that comes from brewing up a cup, is not so easily replaced.
So, you need to find a high-energy beverage that doesn't trigger your nose neurons and signal your olfactory bulb to register a bad smell.
Your options are:
- Cold brew coffee (some people claim that the cold temperature reduces - but doesn't resolve - the coffee-evoked parosmia),
- Energy drinks,
- Zest energy tea.
Tea is generally not going to cause parosmia-based disgust and it will provide the energy you need to start your day. Unlike energy drinks, it can be served hot and cold too.
Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll like the taste of tea, whether you have parosmia or not. Nonetheless, tea can be made and blended with a wide range of flavors. Unlike coffee, most people can find a flavor they like and a flavor they don't like all within the umbrella of different tea types.
Explore different tea types in our article Types of Tea, and learn more about our unique tea flavors at Zest below.
Other Foods that Have Triggered Parosmia
The most common triggers besides coffee include roasted meat, chocolate, fried eggs, garlic and onions. The disgusting aromas evoked by these foods can trigger nausea too. Research using gas chromatography olfactometry has found solid evidence that roasty, toasty and smoky flavors in particular trigger a response.5
Treatment for parosmia may include "smell training" which helps you to rediscover normal smells and train your brain over a 6-month period.6 So don't despair, you'll be able to eat chocolate and drink coffee again!
Best Coffee Alternative - Energy Tea
Tea is the new coffee. If you can't start a normal morning without caffeine, you're not alone. With coffee ruled out by your parosmia, energy tea is the next best option.
Standard tea, like English Breakfast tea or a herbal tea, has a small amount of caffeine or no caffeine at all. That's why we create plant-powered high caffeine teas at Zest.
Enjoy the flavor, calmness, and health properties of tea with more caffeine than coffee.
A cup of drip coffee contains around 96mg of caffeine per 8oz serving, while an espresso shot contains around 64mg of caffeine per 1oz shot.7
A cup of freshly brewed Zest Tea (or a can of our sparkling energy tea) contains up to 150mg of caffeine. That's three times the amount of caffeine in a standard black tea!
To create high energy tea, we use additional tea extract. Combined with our high-quality tea leaves and non-GMO natural flavor ingredients, our beverages are entirely plant-powered and vegan.
Try our black teas with a splash of milk. just like your coffee, or opt for something fresher with our green tea blends. Either way, you'll enjoy the caffeine boost you're looking for.
One very important difference between tea and coffee that you'll discover when you switch due to parosmia, is L-Theanine. This is a totally natural amino acid that's found in tea leaves. Importantly, it interacts with caffeine.
So while your usual coffee energy boost would hit you like a tonne of bricks, then crash later in the afternoon just as quickly, tea is different. Tea is slower, smoother, and calmer.
L-Theanine promotes calmness, alertness, and enhances your cognition so you can use your energy boost productively. It also slows down the onset of caffeine and helps it taper off naturally, so you don't crash hard a few hours later.
Parosmia turns your favorite coffee flavors into something utterly repulsive. Researchers have recognized that the rich, roasty flavors of coffee are the culprit here. But tea is different.
Tea can be full-bodied and rich - just take a look at our Spicy Masala Chai, which is our usual top choice for ex-coffee drinkers because it's sweet, spiced and great with milk and/or sugar.
But tea can also be very different. Here are some tea flavors that we recommend you try. If you want to give them all a go, check out the mega sampler.
- Blue Lady - smooth black tea with subtle citrus notes and a little fruity hint,
- Pomegranate Mint - refreshing green tea with mint and pomegranate notes,
- Superberry Samba - bright green tea that's naturally sweetened with berries and superfruits.
To discover the best tea flavors to replace coffee, read our article Best Tea to Replace Coffee.
Iced Energy Tea
If you're looking for a parosmia-friendly drink to replace your iced coffee, then try our range of ready-to-drink iced teas. We recommend starting with Cucumber Melon if you want something super refreshing, or Blackberry Lime if you need something a bit stronger!
Our ready-to-drink range is all zero or low sugar, and made with the natural plant-powered formula of tea leaves and tea extract to create an energy boost. We also fortify these drinks with added vitamins, which is particularly beneficial if your diet has suffered due to parosmia.
Check out the entire range of ready-to-drink iced energy teas.
Both tea and coffee have health benefits. If you've been drinking a cup of coffee every morning for years, you may be benefiting from a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, improved brain health, and a lower risk of depression.8
But coffee isn't the only caffeinated drink that's beneficial for your mental health. Tea comes with numerous health benefits including:
- Tea stimulates the central nervous system and improves brain function, by benefiting both your memory and attention,9
- The antioxidative properties of polyphenols found in tea may be preventing cancer. Some studies have found that polyphenolics inhibit carcinogenesis, preventing tumor formation and growth,10
- Regularly consuming tea is linked to lowering blood pressure in individuals with elevated blood pressure or hypertension,11
- Green tea in particular may be an effective tool for preventing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a chronic liver disease.12
Learn more about the numerous health benefits of tea in our article A Complete Guide to the Health Benefits of Drinking Tea.
How to Treat Parosmia
Whether you have parosmic episodes after a COVID-19 infection or due to any other cause of parosmia, it can take quite a while to retrain your brain. But it is possible. You won't be stuck smelling repulsive foods for the rest of your life.
For many people, parosmia fixes itself as the cause or trauma heals. For example, if parosmia is caused by a medication, cancer treatment, or smoking, then it should dissipate once the cause is removed.
If your parosmia is caused by a tumor, brain surgery may be necessary to remove the cause.
For many people who experience parosmia due to a minor infection or head injury, it can take months for the correct sense of smell to return. During that time, there may be significant loss in quality of life. So, researchers have found a way to retrain how you smell.
"Olfactory retraining therapy basically allows patients to relearn smell by consciously sniffing at least four different odorants two times per day for several months."13
The therapy should encourage smell nerves to regrow and improve brain connectivity to reconnect your favorite foods and drinks with the correct smells that go with them.14 If you opt for this therapy, you'll still need to drink tea as a coffee alternative for at least 12 weeks - maintaining the therapy for three months (or longer past seven months if possible) is recommended.
For further information, talk to your doctor about potential treatments.
Once you've undergone therapeutic olfactory training with frequent essential oils or other specific scents, most patients regain their normal sense of smell. You'll then be free to enjoy cup after cup of coffee...
...Although you wouldn't be blamed for sticking with tea! The smoother energy boost and satisfying flavor of a cup of tea is hard to beat. Sweet without sugar, easy to brew, and delicious hot or cold.
Explore the full range of Zest Tea products at ZestTea.com to learn more about why we are firmly in Team Tea.
Does parosmia get better?
Yes, parosmia gets better. If you're experiencing parosmia due to an infection or cold, it should revert to normal over time. If your parosmia is caused by a tumor or damage to your neurons/olfactory bulb, then your doctor may recommend surgery or a specific treatment for that.
You can also try smell training and other therapeutic treatments that other parosmia patients find helpful.
How long does parosmia last after COVID?
Some researchers have stated that it lasts on average for 3 months, while other reports suggest it can last for up to 6 months.15 As new COVID variants emerge and more long-term studies are conducted, we'll have a more complete picture of how long parosmia lasts.
The good news is that COVID-19 parosmia isn't permanent!
How to live with parosmia?
If you are waiting for your parosmia symptoms to fade, you may want to make some dietary and lifestyle changes. Avoid roasted, smokey and toast-like foods and opt for fresher flavors. Swap your coffee for tea and eat fresh food rather than fried foods.
Parosmia can impact your quality of life in a significant way, so if you are struggling with these dietary changes and want to do more, speak to your doctor about smell training and other potential treatments.
Why does parosmia make coffee taste bad?
Parosmia damages the olfactory neurons in your nose and possibly the olfactory bulb in your brain too. Aroma compounds that usually smell good are instead triggering neurons and signaling the olfactory bulb that they taste bad. Coffee aroma molecules are one of many food types that trigger this reaction, along with garlic, chocolate and roasted meat.
What are olfactory disorders?
Olfactory disorders are medical disorders that impact the olfactory system (receptors, neurons and bulb) in your nose and brain. As a result, foods that usually smell good will become repulsive. Research has found numerous causes, including tumors, tobacco smoking, and viral infections like COVID-19.
What are the aroma compounds present in coffee?
Coffee aromas are best described as rich, toasty, roasted and bold. It's comparable to chocolate and - to some extent - black tea or pu-erh. Roasted coffee beans have over a thousand chemical compounds, creating complex and deep flavor notes. This is why coffee connoisseurs discuss flavor notes when tasting coffee - smoky, spicy, earthy, fruity, chocolatey, nutty, etc. Interestingly, the caffeine component is flavorless and odorless.16