Why do cooking smells make me gag?

The smells of roasting, frying and baking are often associated with welcoming, homely, mouth-watering aromas. But not when you have parosmia. 

The smell of cooking suddenly becomes the stuff of nightmares. We look at why, and some tips for getting around it.

Chemical reactions

What we detect as smell is the thousands of molecules naturally escaping from the food, flora and fauna around us. In general terms, heat stimulates the rate of escape, which means more molecules reach the receptors in your nose, which explains why the smells of cooking are so powerful. 

Now combine that with what we know about parosmia. Recent research at the University of Reading demonstrates that the odour molecules that trigger parosmia share some common structures, and occur across a range of seemingly unrelated foods. The same potent molecular compounds can be found in foods as diverse as onions and coffee and watermelon.

And now, let’s throw in a third parosmia grenade: the chemical process known as the Maillard Reaction. This occurs in the browning process of cooking – roasting, baking and frying. It is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. Roasted chicken, baking cookies, frying onions are all examples of the Maillard Reaction at work.

When your recovering neurons are bombarded with these potent compounds, parosmia – that unique, disgusting smell – is your brain’s response. Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to reduce the impact of cooking smells.

Stay cool

Heat stimulates the release of a larger number of parosmia-triggering compounds, so keeping it cool will reduce that activity. For example, some people notice that roasting chicken is a parosmia trigger, but cold cuts of turkey are quite manageable. 

When your reactions are severe – very common in the early days of parosmia – you may find that eating cold foods will help you get the nutrition you need. If you are the cook, use a nose clip in the kitchen to avoid being overpowered, and remove it when food is cool enough to stop being a trigger.

Go slow

It’s not always necessary to take heat out of the equation completely. Changing your cooking methods to avoid the Maillard Reaction can help. 

  • Poaching meat like chicken and fish avoids browning. 
  • Using a slow cooker is an excellent way to include a wider range of ingredients in your meal without suffering the effects of browning. 
Feel your way

Parosmia does not last forever, it will pass. We know that changing your habits is inconvenient and it’s disheartening, but cooking and eating things differently – just for a while – will help your recovery. Parosmia is a health condition that you have to make adjustments for, so whatever you try, be kind to yourself.

This information is taken from our Food Masterclass – created with our friends at Altered Eating – and is available as an online course on the AbScent Network.