Exploring the Age-Related Changes in Our Sense of Taste ,Maybe you turned to Brussels sprouts in your late teens. Or maybe you were addicted to sweet things – specifically candy – as a child, only to grow out of them later. It may have taken you into adulthood to start craving bitter foods and drinks like sauteed kale or an olive martini.
Understanding Age-Related Changes in Taste: Exploring Shifting Palates
It’s a familiar story, right? While we all have our own unique preferences, most of us gravitate towards sweeter things and we avoid bitter-tasting foods as children, then develop more sophisticated tastes as adults—and our tastes often change again in our later years.
Of course, it’s a given that we like different foods at different times in our lives. But what is perhaps less understood is why our tastes change as we age.
“These senses [of taste and smell] change during development, but the brain is also plastic and learns; we perceive these aromas with our brain,” says Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “One of the biggest times when these senses change is during childhood. Research shows that [children] really live in different sense worlds.’
Understanding our sense of taste
It’s not just our taste buds that tell us if we like a certain food. When we sink our teeth into, say, a crunchy apple, our brains must process a a dizzying array of sensory and neurochemical signals to help us decide if we want another bite. Our taste buds, located on the tongue, palate, esophagus and back of the throat, respond to five basic stimuli – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the more recently discovered my mind. But these flavors are only part of the story.
“A great example is to plug your nose while you eat and chew, and you’ll just taste it,” says Mennella. “But once you unblock your nose, you can smell the smells in the foods hitting the olfactory receptors in the back of your mouth.”
Our memories are also deeply connected to taste. (Just ask Marcel Proust, whose bite into a tea-soaked madeleine famously pulled it off on a mental reminiscence.) Scientists have even found a direct connection between the part of the brain responsible for taste memory and the region responsible for encoding when and where we experienced that taste, according to a study published in Journal of Neurology in 2014
“Taste is what connects us to our past and gives us a sense of identity,” says Menella. “And it allows foods to provide us with comfort. Those are really powerful senses.”
Taste preferences in childhood
It turns out that our cravings for sweet and salty foods when we’re children may be hardwired into our basic biology. From an evolutionary perspective, says Menella, sweetness is nature’s shorthand for high-calorie foods, while salty flavors signal the presence of a much-needed mineral. This is because until relatively recently in human history, children needed every bit of energy they could find to survive into adulthood. As a result, their palates evolved toward energy-dense foods.
Sweet vs. Bitter
“If they had a choice, they would probably eat a lot more sweets, because that’s just the biology of it all,” Mennella says. “They’re really looking for that energy source. We did not evolve in an environment with low-calorie sweeteners that provide sweetness without energy or refined sugars.
On the other hand, as children we tend to avoid bitter tasting foods. In fact, some researchers believe that children have a hypersensitive sense of taste – especially when it comes to bitterness. Just as sweetness is nature’s caloric density alarm, bitter tastes act as biological skull and crossbonesprotecting us from ingesting potential toxins during childhood.
“Bitterness is often a signal of things that may be poisonous or things we need to watch out for,” Mennella says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to like bitter foods once you know they’re safe.”
These food preferences can also start before birth. For starters, women often become more sensitive to bitterness during pregnancy. A mother’s diet can even directly affect her unborn child. Thanks to ultrasound scanning, scientists have observed fetuses grimace in the womb when their mothers consumed a kale capsule, according to a 2022 study Psychological science.
Why do taste buds change?
As we move through childhood and into adolescence, our senses lose this hypersensitivity to certain tastes. And as our sensitivity to bitter—and preferences for sweet and salty—diminish, we become bolder and less picky, expanding our tastes through exposure and experience. During this period we may find that in fact like once despised foods like beets and broccoli.
“We’re omnivores, so we’re open to a wide variety of foods,” Mennella says. “I think the learning is always there.”
Another change occurs when we move into middle age. This is when rude 10,000 taste buds we are born with they start to stop growing back. These taste buds are titans of cellular metabolism, dying and regrowing once every 10 days. Starting in the 40s and 50s, however, they just don’t regenerate with the same frequency. This means we have fewer taste buds sending sensory signals to the brain.
Read more: How our sense of taste develops and adapts
This isn’t the only factor that can make foods taste bland over the years. Our sense of smell also begins to decline as we age, as our olfactory receptors also stop regenerating as quickly. Still, Menella cautions that these sensory changes can be quite subtle — and are often unique to a particular smell or taste.
“It’s not like all odors are going down,” she says. “It may be one; maybe you’re not as sensitive to rose, but just as sensitive to [aromas] of garlic. […] It is not a homogenous loss.”
What else changes our sense of taste?
It’s important to note that aging isn’t the only thing that can dull our taste buds. Some medicines, including those used to treat high blood pressure, can change the way your taste buds perceive certain chemicals. Viral infections and illnesses that target the upper respiratory tract can also reduce your sense of smell, and therefore taste.
“These senses have received a lot of attention during the COVID pandemic,” Mennella says. “They were the canaries in the coal mine and some of the first warning signs of contracting the virus. The foods just don’t taste the same.
For most of us, these senses usually return over time. But there are still many people who continue to struggle with loss of sense and taste from COVID-19. According to a 2022 surveyabout 15 percent of people who lost their sense of smell due to the disease still had problems six months later — about 9 million people in the U.S. alone.
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