Allergic to the smell of food

As a dairy intolerant who also reacts to garlic, Sinnet Morch had a hard time finding anything to eat when she was hospitalised after a recent stroke. However her problems with garlic have their root in her lifelong intolerance to strong food smells.

For many years I thought I suffered from a peculiar, possibly unique, condition. It is not life-threatening and is easily managed. All I have to do is avoid lunching with Danes - or Swedes...

The Danes, of whom I am one, have smorgasbord for lunch - as do the Swedes. I am intolerant to most of the foods thereon (‘bord’ means ‘table’): cheese, salami, paté, vinegar and most things pickled, such as fish. These foods all have one thing in common: they emit pungent smells. And it is those smells that I am unable to tolerate. They cause extreme nausea, and at times, can make me vomit. It all started on my third birthday...

Until I was three I had eaten in the nursery with Ingeborg, my nanny and my baby brother. Stews, mashes, soups, berries…. yummy. At three we were thought to be grown up enough to join the family at the dining table. Ingeborg brought me downstairs and sat me on several cushions. A half crescent of spring flowers lay around my place and there were small piles of presents.

My father came home for lunch so my older brothers and now myself sat at a small table at the other end of the dining room - presumably so that my parents could discuss weighty matters unsuitable for children. I joined my brothers and looked in amazement at the strange foods - then their smells hit me full on and I threw up. My mother rang her silver bell vigorously and Ingeborg could be heard clumping down the stairs. Ella rushed from the kitchen. Ingeborg carted me away and Ella cleaned up.

As my mother considered any temperature above 37 serious, Dr Hansen practically lived in our house. (In hindsight, I think he fancied my mother.) He was called immediately and could find nothing wrong with me. ‘Has she eaten something she didn’t like?’ he asked. When told I had eaten nothing since breakfast, he shook his head and recommend bed rest. I was sent back to the nursery.

On the 9th April 1940 the Nazis invaded Denmark - Hitler needed our masses of farm produce to feed his troops. He referred to us as his larder; his ‘Spiese-kammer’. Very soon foods started to disappear from our table. First butter, then cheese and eggs. Soon meat and fish, and for the remainder of the war lunch was soup and bread. Ella went back to her parents' farm where food was a great deal better than in our town house. Ingeborg started to date German soldiers and, as my father had started the Danish resistance army, she had to go.

I had no food problems for the duration of the war. When foods started to return after 1945 I was old enough to guess at my problem and take avoiding action.

The only trouble I had with cooked foods was cauliflower. My mother’s new housekeeper was from a smallholding near town and she knew how to solve that one. She put a thick slice of bread on top of the cauliflower while it cooked. It absorbed all smells. This, incidentally, works with all basic smells.

Garlic was added to my woes once I left Denmark. When I had a stroke three years ago I spent weeks in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, not only half paralysed but deeply nauseous. Thanks to Lloyd Grossman, the hospital food (prepared in Wales) was saturated with garlic and the nurses and doctors stank of the stuff.

Meanwhile, I still don’t lunch with Danes - or Swedes...


Osmophobia or olfactophobia is a ‘fear, aversion, or psychological hypersensitivity’ to smells suffered by around 40% of migraineurs. The smells that most commonly offended the migraine patients during headache attacks, according to Professor Giorgio Zanchin, from the University of Padua who has recently studied the condition, came from perfume (64%), food (55%) and cigarette smoke (55%).

Could the connection between strong smells and migraine have more to do with a physiological reaction, such as Sinnet’s, rather than a psychological ‘fear or aversion’?

First published in 2007

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