Can you taste wildfire smoke? Maybe, but it’s complicated, says University at Buffalo taste expert

Kathryn Medler stands in a lab with her arms crossed.

Kathryn Medler

Release Date: June 8, 2023

“Differentiating between flavor and taste can be very difficult. ”
Kathryn Medler, professor of biological sciences
University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Nearly everyone can smell wildfire smoke, but can you taste it?

The answer, according to University at Buffalo taste expert Kathryn Medler, is maybe.

“There is a wide range in the number of tastebuds that we have on our tongues,” says Medler, PhD, professor of biological sciences in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“Children and some adults tend to have more and, as a result, they can have a more sensitive palette,” she says. “It’s more likely that these people can actually taste smoke particles that are sticking in our mouths, and that taste profile is likely to be bitter or sour.”

But for many people sensing a charred or even cigar-like flavor in their mouth due to the Canadian wildfires, it is most likely a misplaced sense of smell.

“Differentiating between flavor and taste can be very difficult,” says Medler. “Flavor is the combination of smell, taste and our somatosensory system, which is a complex neural network that produces the perception of touch, temperature and pain,” she says.

A good test to see if someone is actually tasting something – as opposed to only smelling it – is to plug one’s nose, and see if the taste is still present. If so, you may be tasting it, says Medler.

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