Multicultural smell test kicked pumpkin pie out

A slice of homemade Thanksgiving pumpkin pie s...

Image via Wikipedia

By Emily Eggleston

Hopefully you didn’t have a cold this Thanksgiving because a blocked nose means a bland meal. Taste is mostly smell. Without smell, we’re cast into a world limited to food texture, temperature, and minimal flavor differentiation.

The study of smells extends into ancient history, according Jayant Pinto, a nasal specialist (aka an MD in otolaryngology). In his 2011 publication on olfaction, he called smell the mediator of safety, nutrition, sensation of pleasure, and general well-being.

If you smelled one of the millions of pumpkins pies baking in the U.S. yesterday it may have conjured many associations. Family gatherings, Thanksgiving feasts of yore, cold weather, cozy desserts. For the Irish guest in attendance at my Thanksgiving dinner, the pumpkin pie tasted and smelled like nothing familiar. It was a new dessert to try.

Unbeknownst to me, pumpkin pie is not a universally recognized treat or scent. That was part of the challenge Richard Doty, Avron Marcus and W. William Lee ran into when they tried to craft a smell test that could be used all around the globe.

Until 1996, University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT) was a common tool for scientific smell analysis. It contained 50 smells, some food-related and some not. But as scientists tried to perform olfactory assessments that were comparable across international borders, they ran into troubles.

Italians didn’t recognize the scent of dill pickles, fruit punch, or wintergreen. Russians couldn’t identify the aromatics of bubble gum, coconut, licorice, or pizza. The Chinese weren’t able to sniff and name cedar, mint or root beer. And scientists from all three were not pleased to see pumpkin pie on the smell test.

Sourced from Fotopedia, photo by Tali Bamba

After scientists from all over the world weighed in, Doty, Marcus, and Lee published a new, multicultural smell test in 1996. They narrowed the UPSIT’s 50 scents to 12, making their test more convenient and efficient. They called it the Cross-Cultural Smell Identification Test (CC-SIT).

Their new and improved smell test included six food and six non-food scents: banana, chocolate, cinnamon, lemon, onion, pineapple, gasoline, paint thinner, rose, soap, smoke, and turpentine.

CC-SIT caught on and is still used. Included in its almost 200 citations are many 2011 publications. Testing a decreased sense of smell, and taste, is important for assessing symptoms of various maladies. Studies published this year citing Doty et al. 1996 noted, among many things, the decreased olfactory performance of people with general aging, severe depression, Korsakoff’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, Alhzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.

Sinking my teeth and nose in to an aromatic bite of pumpkin pie with a perfectly nuanced sense of taste yesterday is definitely one of the things I was thankful for.

Doty, Richard, Avron Marcus, and W. William Lee. 1996. Development of the 12-Item Cross-Cultural Smell Identification Test (CC-SIT). Laryngoscope. 106:353-356.

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