It is as plain as the noses on peoples’ faces; life would be non-aromatic without noses.
Having recently attended the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this past spring, I was reminded of how much smells can affect tea aroma. I am referring to the smells wafting through the air. Cigarette smoke, stale casino air, perfume, even musty rooms can all affect one’s sense of smell, and thus affect one’s sense of taste.
Oftentimes, we experience food or tea via our sense of smell before taking a bite of food or taking a sip of tea. If a food or beverage aroma does not go past our nose, it does not go past our lips. Meaning, if we find a food or beverage to be offensive, unpleasant, or foul smelling, there is a very high probability that the item will not be consumed. An unpleasant aroma has served us well through the ages, alerting us not to eat the foul smelling culprit that has great potential to be harmful for our bodies. Conversely, a pleasent smell can enhance our feeling of well being, encourage us to eat delectable smelling food, or transport us to a far away place just with a whiff of coconut, suntan location, or jasmine. Our nose looks simple, resting on our face, but it is far from a simple organ on our body.
The nose is an organ that is actually considered part of the respiratory system. It can act as an air filter for our body, while warming and moistening air we breath in through our nose. The nose, additionally, is the primary organ in the olfactory system, allowing us to detect and smell aromas. The nose is a complex organ with several key nasal, or olfactory components that make up the sensation of smell. In an overly simplified and easily relatable way of describing smell, I will be using the word picture or image of a train full of aroma molecules on a track. My apologies to my friends in any medical/biological capacity in advance for the oversimplification.
From Air To Aroma
Upon initially smelling tea or food, the aroma molecules wafting in the air are carried up into the nose. At the top and back of the inside of the nose are receptors that collect the aroma molecules. This patch of nasal receptors is called the olfactory patch. It is here where there is a concentrated collection of nerve cells, and nerve pathways that eventually link to the brain. The function of these receptors is to send a signal to the brain. The nasal olfactory patch is the first stop a proverbial train loaded with aroma molecules makes while chugging down a train track. The brain eventually receives these signals as smell, and then tells us what we have smelled. This nasal train and train track type system is called the orthonasal ofaction. Rudimentarily, we smell something, the receptors in the nose signal the brain, the brain signals us what we just smelled.
The smell, or aroma, will signal various parts of the brain in order for us to understand what we have smelled. Once the aroma molecule attaches to the nasal receptors in the olfactory patch, the aroma then moves along to the second train stop, the pyriform cortex; the first part of the brain that is signaled. The function of the pyriform cortex is to form groups of aromas. The aroma groups, now called odor groups, are then transferred to the hippocampus, the third train stop on the train track. The hippocampus is the warehouse of memory in the brain. The odor groups trigger memory that may be associated with the smell.
The train, or nerve signals, that are carrying the odor groups simultaneously stops at a fourth train stop, the amygdala. It is here that the emotion that could be associated with the odor group could be conjured up. All this occurs subconsciously, without having to intentionally catalogue, remember and recall memories and emotions associated with a specific smell.
The odor grouping, called an odor object, also arrives at the insula part of the brain, the fifth train stop. In the Insula, the brain combines the external and internal sensations our body has perceived and basically matches up what we have smelled. Like items are linked with like items to determine what exactly we are smelling. The Insula gathers information from other senses, hearing, taste, and vision, to aide in determining what was smelled.
All of this collected information is sent to the orbitofrontal cortex part of the brain located above the eyes. At this sixth train stop, the brain signifies clearly what is smelled. If the smell is indistinguishable, meaning it is neither pleasant or unpleasant, a pathway, or additional train track path, to the superior frontal cortex is opened, giving us the seventh train stop that the aroma train conducts. This pathway registers to the orbitofrontal cortex region of the brain, to “wake up and smell the roses”, to pay attention to the smell and distinguish the smell, to figure out what is being smelled. This entire process is repeated over and over again every time we take a moment to smell an object.
When we smell tea, we are smelling over five hundred various aromas that comprise the smells of tea. Add to the tea aromas numerous competing aromas in the surrounding air and there can be confounding smells that can mask the aromas of tea. In addition, tea is hygroscopic, meaning tea can adsorb surrounding moisture and become adulterated by potential aroma molecules in the moisture. When preparing a cup of tea, or taste testing numerous teas, best practices suggest clean, dry, unscented hands that are lotion free and fragrance free. Furthermore, when cupping, or taste testing teas, it is optimal to control, or at least minimize odors and aromas that may be prevalent in the ambient air.
The sensation of smell can be diminished. If colds and allergies are any indication, a clogged nose does affect the taste of food and beverage alike. If a nose is pinched closed or clogged with increased nasal mucus, the nasal receptors are not as efficient, or, unable to signal to the brain what the aroma experience makes up the smell. Chemicals, medications, diseases, and viruses can decrease or completely eradicate the sense of smell. The sensation of smell may possibly return to people who have temporarily lost the ability to smell things. Lastly, the sense of smell is one of the last senses to diminish as we age. If there are concerns about the inability to detect odor, an appointment with a doctor might “clear the air” on uncertainty.
Next time you smell a wonderful cup of tea, thank your nose, for your nose is telling you what you smell,
Lovelace, Virginia Utermohlen.Tea: A Nerd’s Eye View.VU Books, 2020.
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!