One of the more bizarre effects the COVID-19 virus is its ability to alter one’s sense of smell, and by association, taste. Many have reported a complete loss of smell and taste, at least temporarily. Others have had only certain smells and tastes be negatively altered. One of the more common smells impacted by COVID is that of coffee. Many individuals have claimed that post-infection, coffee smelled terrible, some saying it was similar to rotting meat, other saying it was akin to garbage.
But now, scientists may have figured out what is causing otherwise pleasant smells to go bad.
As reported by The Guardian, the new research was published recently in the journal Communications Medicine and sought to find causes for parosmia, the condition that causes “disturbances” in a person’s sense of smell. (The initial partial of full loss of the sense of smell is call anosmia.) Performed by Jane K. Parker and Christine E. Kelly of the University of Reading’s School of Chemistry, Food, and Pharmacy as well as Simon. B. Gane of the University College London Hospital, the study looked for “trigger molecules” that trigger parosmia.
To do this, they looked at the chemical compounds in coffee—one of the more common aromas affected by parosmia—to find the culprit. “Trapping the aroma of coffee,” researchers were able to single out various chemical compounds for folks with parosmia to assess. They found a total of 15 different compounds that triggered parosmia in the volunteers, but the leading culprit was a chemical called 2-furanmethanethiol.
Of the 29 volunteers with parosmia who took part in the study, 20 identified 2-furanmethanethiol as having a horrible smell. One theory why this particular compound is so impactful is because it has an “exceptionally low threshold for being detected,” meaning that it may be one of the first compounds a person’s nose picks up when after COVID-related anosmia.
And while the trigger for parosmia appears to have been determined, the inner workings of why these compounds have this effect remains unknown. Dr. Parker suggests that the brain is somehow mis-categorizing the smell:
This is solid evidence that it’s not “all in the head,” and that the sense of disgust can be related to the compounds in the distorted foods. The central nervous system is certainly involved as well in interpreting the signals that it receives from the nose.
But still, with the new findings on 2-furanmethanethiol, researchers “now know this has to be something to do with the nerves and their receptors because that’s how these molecules are detected,” per Dr. Gane.
So I guess if we as a society have collectively said fuck it, we can’t be bothered to try and get ahead of a lethal but easily preventable virus, at least maybe we can figure out how to keep it from having our coffee taste so bad. Is it a fair trade? No. But will I take it as a consolation prize? Also no. Wear masks, get vaccinated, and we can all get back to coffee tasting bad because you made it wrong.
Nose mug by Rafael Cacharro Muciño