Sense of taste and aging
One often overlooked effect of aging is decreased sense of smell and taste that can lead to diminished appetite and weight loss, malnutrition, impaired immunity, and worsening health. After age 50, we start to lose some of the over 10,000 taste buds that we’re born with. While changes in taste buds contribute to decreased sense of taste, it’s actually the decreases in olfactory function, or sense of smell, that play the most important role in taste. It’s been reported that 75% of people over age 80 have major olfactory impairment.
How we taste foods
There are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, or savory. Umami is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid found in protein-containing foods including chicken, cheese, nuts and meat. Glutamate taste is often described as brothy, full-bodied, meaty, and savory. Glutamate is added to foods in the form of MSG, or monosodium glutamate, which breaks down into its component parts, sodium and glutamate. Chewing food releases molecules into the mouth that flow up the back of the throat to the nose to stimulate smell receptors. The five tastes combine with texture, spiciness, temperature of food and aroma to produce flavor. It’s the total combination of the basic tastes and other senses that allow us to distinguish food flavors.
Possible causes of decreased sense of taste
Elderly people often have several chronic diseases and routinely take multiple medications, which leads to increased risk of taste disorders. Many medications affect taste, smell or the production of saliva which can lead to changes in food preferences and eating habits.
Other potential causes or contributors to loss of taste include poor oral hygiene, radiation treatment to the head or neck, head or facial trauma, smoking, and nutrient deficiencies including zinc, copper, B12 or niacin.
Decreased taste can lead to health problems
Some people eat less because of the decreased enjoyment of food, which can lead to undesired weight loss and inadequate nutrition. Others try to compensate by adding salt or sugar to food to increase the flavor. Adding more sugar can lead to weight gain or increased risk of chronic disease or poor management of disease such as heart disease and diabetes. Adding more salt can contribute to higher blood pressure levels.
Use these 8 tips to improve the taste of foods:
- Check with your physician to rule out any medical reasons for impaired taste, including use of medications.
- Intensify the flavors of meat, poultry and fish with high-heat cooking techniques such as pan-searing, grilling or broiling, which help to brown meat and add flavor. Don't overcook, burn or char meat which creates substances that may increase risk of developing cancer.
- Include flavorful hot peppers in recipes, or sprinkle hot sauce on foods like chicken, fish, or eggs for a burst of flavor.
- Roast cut-up vegetables in the oven to bring out a naturally sweet, more intense flavor.
- Squeeze lemon or lime juice on vegetables, fish and chicken for a flavor boost.
- Use a variety of fresh or dried herbs, or salt-free herb blends, to flavor foods without adding salt.
- Marinate meat, chicken and fish in flavorful, acidic mixtures that include flavored vinegars.
- A visually pleasing meal tastes better because the flavor of foods is influenced by the color and shapes of the meal. Include a variety of brightly colored vegetables or fruit and arrange the food in a visually pleasing manner. Imagine a plate with baked chicken, a baked potato, and cauliflower – all brown and white colors is not visually appealing. Spice up the meal and increase the visual appeal and taste by sprinkling parsley on the potato and swapping out cauliflower for carrots.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
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- 7 Ways to Enhance the Flavor of Your Meals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and-prep/cooking-tips-and-trends/enhancing-the-flavor-of-your-meals Reviewed April 2017. Accessed 5-25-17.
PDF Handout: Taste and Aging Handout
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.