Our taste in food changes as we get older. As kids there were foods that were so repulsive we couldn’t stand them and there were those we loved. Today those likes and dislikes may have completely flip-flopped. Why?
Taste can transform over a lifetime. Taste, while experienced mostly in the mouth, is the product of activity happening, they say, in the sensors and cells of the physical body, neuro-chemical activation and memory, and it depends greatly on our sense of smell.
There are five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (otherwise known as savory).
Taste buds are the receptors that communicate to our brain what we’ve just placed on our tongues. They identify specific chemicals in foods, then analyze the overall profile, and send signals to the brain that are translated as sweet, salty, etc.
Note that flavor and taste are not the same thing. Sugar, a taste, and strawberry, a flavor and they are detected using different sensory systems.
Taste is experienced by the taste (aka gustatory) receptors which are the taste buds. Favor is experienced through the olfactory (smell) receptors. That’s why if you sense of smell is compromised it can impact your experience of a food. What that means is that if you’re, say, drinking fruit juice you might taste that it’s sweet, but be unable to recognize that it’s strawberry flavored.
Most of our taste buds are located in the bumps on our tongues, there are also receptors on the roof of the mouth, the epiglottis and in the throat. Recent studies of taste have revealed that a separate receptor exists to identify glutamate, an amino acid present in proteins, which gives food a strong umami taste. They think this is to make sure the body ingests enough protein.
The average person has 10,000 taste buds at birth, which are in the papillae, those little bumps on the tongue. Each papilla can have up to 700 taste buds, with each bud containing 50-80 specialized cells that work in concert to identify tastes.
Taste buds vary from person to person, and affects the intensity of the taste one experiences. Someone who is extra sensitive to subtle tastes and chemical combinations, might have twice as many taste buds, while some people are below average.
While many taste preferences are genetically determined (i.e. how many taste buds you have) most are based on experience and culture. The shaping of taste preferences begins in the womb and continues throughout the rest of our lives, based largely on what we’re exposed to and how we associate with those early food experiences.
Taste buds that fire in groups and in certain combinations change as we age and they die off. Every two weeks or so, our taste buds die and regenerate like any other cells in the body. Around 40 years of age, this process slows down and as the taste buds, fewer grow back.
Fewer taste buds means blander taste and a different combination of activated cells. As a result, a combination that used to taste good to us might not be so great as we get older.
Another factor is that our sense of smell decreases as we age. In fact, smell is the sense most affected by aging and this changes how we interpret a food and whether or not we like it. One result is that sometimes we begin gravitating towards stronger, more savory tastes, as these will be more easily perceived and less likely to register as bland.
Pregnancy changes taste and preference. Studies have shown that pregnant women have a decreased ability to taste salt in food. In fact, they preferred foods with a significantly higher salt content than non-pregnant women. These studies suggested that the body has a specific mechanism to increase salt intake during pregnancy. If this is the case, other hormonal fluctuations or changes in the body’s balance might change taste, too.
Stress interrupts a variety of bodily functions, including taste. Stress can cause nutritional deficiencies, which may cause a change in taste to encourage the intake of specific foods. It can alter hormone production and balance and interfere with sleep and cellular regeneration. As a result taste preferences and cravings change during stressful times.
What we eat on a regular basis shapes taste preferences. Most Americans don’t prefer plain vegetables or unseasoned salads because the standard American diet is packed with processed foods, where sugar, salt and oil are used in excess. Excessive consumption of these foods can alter the body’s preference, raising our threshold for tastiness. The brain begins craving more intense taste.
It is possible to train our palate to like just about anything, especially if there is a motivation for doing so. Some tastes are acquired meaning they are only liked with repeated consumption. You can train your taste buds to prefer different flavors and it will usually require five to 10 repeated exposures.
Psychological factors also come into play. When we learn which foods are best and which are unhealthy we begin to base our food decisions on those factors. As we shift what we eat our tastes will adapt. For example, quit eating salt and many foods will begin to taste extremely salty.
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