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With a taste disorder, the sweet ain't as sweet

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By Randy Dotinga:

Ear infections are the the bane of many childhoods, and they can cause problems ranging from vertigo and even deafness. Now, a new study from Australia hints that they may explain why so many kids down under seem to lack a full ability to properly taste food.

Whether ears have anything to do with them or not, taste disorders are common here in the U.S. too, and not just among kids. Millions of Americans suffer from a diminished sense of taste, smell or both.

You may be wishing that you had this problem, especially if you've been trying to get rid of those 15 extra pounds since the Reagan Administration. If food wasn't so darn delicious (I'm looking at you, Sara Lee) you might eat less of it, right?

Well, maybe. But you'd still get hungry and may even suffer from "phantom" tastes, like a phantom limb, that are unpleasant and hard to get rid of.

Taste problems pose another problem that might not have occurred to you: They rob people of the ability to savor food and everything that goes with it.

"It really interferes with their joy of eating with people at a table. You feel left out," said Marion Frank, a professor who studies taste and smell at the University of Connecticut. "They fear vulnerability to social isolation."

Those with taste problems may have medical problems that add to their sense of being alone. Head injuries can cause people to lose their sense of taste and also of smell, which plays a major role in how we detect the flavors of food. Flu, chemotherapy, thyroid problems, cancer and neurodegenerative disorders can rob a person of the ability to smell or taste too, said Dr. Robert Henkin, director of the Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington D.C.   

The Australian study raises the specter of another culprit -- those pesky and painful ear infections. Researchers found that 10-12 percent of kids studied (including native Aborigines) had taste disorders, and many couldn't detect sweetness. The lead author is quoted as saying middle-ear infections, which are especially common in Aboriginal kids, may be the cause.

"The nerve that goes to the front of the tongue for taste passes through the ear, and it can be destroyed if there's swelling and a lot of fluid in there when people are very young," the University of Connecticut's Frank said. "That's a very well-documented phenomenon."

The kids in Australia seem to be unusual: it's fairly rare for people to lose one kind of taste in particular. As you may remember from high school science class, we detect sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. There's one more whose addition to the list is fairly recent: it's umami, which is described as savory.

The good news is that you aren't necessarily doomed to a life of dull food if you lose the ability to taste or smell.

Treatments include hormones, magnetic stimulation of the brain, vitamins and surgery, Henkin said, adding that many patients don't actually have the severed nerves that their physicians assume causes their loss of taste. "We can help these people," he said. "These problems can be evaluated and treated."

Just remember: if your taste comes back, you may realize once again why you can't stand your mom's meatloaf. Luckily, it's a lot harder to lose the ability to pretend.

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