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An Interview with Dr Stephanie Hunter

Dr Stephanie Hunter received a grant from AbScent to research whether using capsaicin in food could make food more enjoyable. Here she tells us about her work and what motivates her.

Dr Stephanie Hunter is a researcher at Monell Chemical Sciences Center and recipient of AbScent’s first research grant. Dr Hunter is researching the role of capsaicin in increasing the enjoyment of food for those living with smell loss. 

What made you interested in nutrition and smell disorders? 

I’ve always had an interest in health. I had wanted to train as a nurse and during my degree, I took a nutrition class. I became obsessed; after the class I just started thinking about everything in terms of nutrition. So, I decided to switch majors.

At first I thought nutrition was simple: there are clear dietary guidelines. If you follow the rules, you’ll be eating healthily. It was actually my dad who was going through chemotherapy who made me realise that nutrition can be a lot more complicated. 

One day, my dad had run out of cash and he asked me for a dollar so that he could get a soda. I asked him, “Why do you need a soda? That’s not healthy.” He replied, “Well, soda is all that tastes good to me right now”. He’d lost his sense of taste due to the chemotherapy. That was an eye opening experience and made me realize there is a lot more to nutrition than a healthy diet – people actually have to like what they are eating. It gave me a lot of empathy for people with chemosensory disorders. 

I eventually went to grad school with a focus on nutrition and then went onto do a postdoctoral training in taste and smell.

When the pandemic started, we heard stories about people losing their taste and smell and how it was really affecting them. People are struggling because they can’t taste their food and it’s really affecting their lives. It reminded me of my dad telling me that soda was the only thing that tasted good to him. I thought, “There needs to be more information out there to help these people know what to eat and how to have a good diet”.

I was looking at the research papers about food and smell loss and there’s just not enough information out there. That’s what drove me to research this specific area: I want to figure out how to help people when they lose their sense of taste or smell and food just doesn’t taste good to them anymore.  

How did you get the idea of researching capsaicin?

When I was reading research papers, salt kept coming up.  A lot of people add more salt to their food to make it taste better. For a nutritionist, that’s a red flag - too much salt can contribute to chronic disease. 

Then I read a paper where they mentioned that adding capsaicin with salt can make food taste saltier. I realised that this might be a healthy strategy for people with smell loss, but it’s never been researched.

How does funding help?

Funding helps conduct research. You can’t answer research questions without having funding, so it’s very helpful to get these opportunities. 

When you do research, it helps you to ask questions. Then you can think of new ideas and things to test.

I’m hopeful that this grant from AbScent will give me data that will help me to do more studies related to smell loss and nutrition in the future. For example, I’d like to use these results to inform a bigger study that uses a normosmic control group. I’d like to go into even more detail about salt taste preferences and salt intake and whether capsaicin can help increase salt taste perception. I hope that it will one day lead to new advice or products being developed. 

Do you have a message for the AbScent community? 

I want you to be able to enjoy your food, to eat healthy and have a good quality of life. I really hope I can help through this research. 


Dr Hunter's project will begin in September 2021 and results will be reported in the summer 2022. 

October 28, 2021