For Some Food Professionals, COVID Has Cast a Long Shadow on Their Senses
Anaïs Saint-André Loughran remembers every cheese she’s ever tasted. The owner of Chantal’s Cheese Shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recalls that when she decided she wanted to be a cheesemonger—at age 4—“all the doors of my memories were tied to cheese, and where and how I tasted it.”
So when Loughran lost her sense of smell after she contracted COVID in March 2020, she was devastated. On the second day, she says, “I woke up, I tried to eat something, and it felt like I was eating nothing.” Since then, her career has been irrevocably changed.
Many food professionals have shared their stories about how COVID impacted their sense of taste and smell. New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao, food and wine writer Lisa Denning, and Arden Wine Bar owner and sommelier Kelsey Glasser all also experienced temporary bouts with loss of smell and taste. But there are others, like Loughran, who are experiencing a longer-term distorted experience of smell called parosmia, a common symptom of long COVID.
“I realized I had parosmia by drinking rotten milk without knowing,” says Loughran.
At first, she recalls, “I could barely eat food. Everything tasted like sewage.” Now, three years later, she says her sense of smell and taste has returned, but it’s completely different than before. “I didn’t get to try the cheese in my shop for a very long time. I had to go through hating everything I had loved, and also liking things I used to hate.” She worked at eating things that now tasted rotten a little bit at time to get used to it and to relearn the new tastes. “Onions were horrible. Still today, raw onions make my stomach jump,” says Loughran.
Before Loughran got sick, she could easily give recommendations for cheese pairings or substitutions. Then, once she began living with long COVID, none of the flavor matched what she had previously known. “Everything came crashing down,” she says.
Cheese is directly tied to Loughran’ earliest memories of her childhood in France. And the work she does is closely tied to her identity, as is the work of many other food professionals who rely on their senses. When her sense of smell and taste changed, everything else had to change too.
Loughran is just one of many people in the food industry who are suffering from long-haul sensory loss that affects her professional life. Holly Fann is a food writer, dining critic, and chef based in St. Louis. She contracted COVID for the first time in October 2021 and her sense of smell and taste have yet to return.
“I was a dining critic at that time and had a regular column,” says Fann. “Everything I do is freelance. There were no resources for me. I contacted the Freelancers Union, and they told me, ‘Maybe there’ll be resources someday, but there aren’t any now.’”
When trying to get support from doctors, she said, “It took six months to get my first appointment,” but there was no cure. “They tell you the best thing to do is to take time off and rest. The best treatment is weeks of incredibly reduced activity—but for anyone who works freelance or with food, you can’t take that time off.”
To help with her loss, Fann has joined a support group for people with long COVID.
“It’s amazing how many other people had the same odd symptoms,” she says, referring to the support group, “but I noticed that there were no people from the hospitality industry.” And while many of the members spoke of chronic pain and other systemic health issues, she was the only one there specifically to talk about her experience with parosmia.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID very broadly as a “range of ongoing health problems,” it’s typically associated with symptoms lasting more than four weeks: brain fog, lightheadedness, sleeping problems, depression and anxiety, and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or “chronic fatigue syndrome,” to name a few. Aside from neurological symptoms, it can also trigger health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease.
Last summer, a CDC analysis found that more than 40 percent of adults in the United States had reported having COVID in the past, and nearly one in five of those reported at least one lingering post-infection symptom that is seriously affecting their daily life. In recent CDC surveys, 14 percent of respondents say they have experienced some form of long COVID. As of August, an estimated 2 to 4 million of those people were out of work due to their ongoing symptoms.
Dr. Nancy Rawson, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, shared the science behind parosmia in an interview with KCRW, describing parosmia as an incorrect aroma experience. “It actually happens quite commonly in people that are recovering their sense of smell following having lost it completely from COVID,” she added. The olfactory system, which controls the mechanisms behind our sense of smell, doesn’t recover equally across all of the nerve pathways that detect thousands of different chemicals.