Taste buds al­ter as we age

New Straits Times - - Heal -

IAM the youngest (un­ex­pected at that!) in my fam­ily. By the time I was grow­ing up, my par­ents were al­ready re­tired, so I un­der­stood very early on the health chal­lenges when peo­ple age. Health-re­lated is­sues that we take for granted are very real for an age­ing per­son in their day-to-day liv­ing.

One thing we rarely give a sec­ond thought to is age­ing taste buds which have an im­pact on a per­son’s taste per­cep­tion of the food and drinks they con­sume. That is why you may no­tice that as you get older, flavours that you once loved may not taste the same as be­fore.

Why does food taste per­cep­tion mat­ter?

Well, the main rea­son is it can have a deep ef­fect on food en­joy­ment and an in­ter­est in eat­ing in the el­derly.

As food is shared and com­mu­nal within a fam­ily, it can cause dis­gruntle­ment when hurt­ful words are ut­tered, for in­stance, that soand-so’s cook­ing is taste­less, etc.

I see this in many fam­i­lies of my clients where spouses and fam­ily mem­bers are try­ing their level best to pre­pare health­ier meals so that that a fam­ily mem­ber can bet­ter man­age their ill­ness — only to be met with strong re­sis­tance to com­ply be­cause the food does not taste as nice.

But with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what ap­peals to our taste buds and ap­petite, we will be bet­ter at do­ing what it takes to help our fam­ily mem­bers eat well.

Here are some tips I’d like to share with you:


Our mouth, tongue and throat are home to an av­er­age of 10,000 taste buds. These taste buds de­tect five main flavours — sweet, sour, bit­ter, salty and a newly-dis­cov­ered savoury taste el­e­ment known as umami.

Be­sides these taste buds, our sense of smell also plays a very sig­nif­i­cant role in whet­ting our ap­petites as it in­di­cates whether the flavour of a food is go­ing to be pleas­ant or un­pleas­ant.

Think of when a cake is be­ing baked. The aroma of the vanilla, but­ter, eggs and sugar in­di­cate the cake is go­ing to be de­li­cious when it gets out of the oven but once the cake gets burnt, the charred smell puts us off in­stantly!

Other senses that con­trib­ute to our ap­petite is the pleas­ant­ness of the food in the mouth, the tem­per­a­ture of the food served and the vis­ual look of the dish.


Changes in flavour per­cep­tion is in­evitable as we get older, and varies with each in­di­vid­ual. The changes can be so sub­tle that they of­ten go un­no­ticed. Our sense of

Grilling your fish deep­ens the rich flavours in pro­tein foods.

smell starts to lessen by the time we en­ter our50s.

Con­tribut­ing rea­sons for this are the loss of nerve cells that de­tect aro­mas in our nose, hor­mone changes, the less­en­ing of nerve sig­nals to our brains and a lower pro­duc­tion of mu­cus.

Our sense of smell will con­tinue to di­min­ish with ev­ery decade as we age. By the time we are in our 80s, our sense of smell may likely lessen by about 60 per cent but it never to­tally goes away. Our taste buds and saliva also slowly start to di­min­ish as we en­ter our 50s and beyond.


Age­ing is one fac­tor in all these changes. But do be aware that some other health con­di­tions and life­style habits — re­gard­less of age — do change your smell and taste per­cep­tion as well.

You can ex­pe­ri­ence a loss of flavour per­cep­tion if you have chronic si­nus, are down with a bad cold, have suf­fered head in­juries, are tak­ing cer­tain med­i­ca­tions, are a smoker, or un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy treat­ments.


With an al­tered taste per­cep­tion, flavours may taste bland to you. A nat­u­ral re­ac­tion would be an urge to add more oil, salt or sugar to your cook­ing. That is not ad­vis­able, as adding too much oil, salt and sugar can worsen any chronic health con­di­tion you may have, such as be­ing over­weight, or hav­ing heart dis­ease, high choles­terol, high blood pres­sure and di­a­betes.

For­tu­nately, there are many ways to bring out the flavour in your foods.

Try these:

When the usual foods start to taste bland, don’t be afraid to try jazz­ing them up with some bolder flavours.

For ex­am­ple, try adding a slice of cheese to your usual sand­wich or grated parme­san to your usual pasta. Mix vine­gar, olive oil and a touch of honey to make a zesty dress­ing for your salad. Squeeze some citrus fruit into your glass of wa­ter or sprin­kle your cooked dish with a lit­tle sliced cut fresh chilli to add sub­tle heat.

All these bold-tast­ing foods help to heighten and en­gage the var­i­ous taste buds in your mouth to make them taste bet­ter.

Lib­er­ally use herbs and spices in your cook­ing. Herbs and spices not only add flavour but also heighten your sense of smell by con­tribut­ing an ex­quis­ite aroma as well.

Herbs and spices can turn the per­cep­tion of bland food to some­thing much more palat­able. Our lo­cal su­per­mar­kets now sell a good va­ri­ety of fresh and dried herbs. Do check them out in the veg­etable aisle.

Just re­mem­ber that one ta­ble­spoon of fresh herbs is equiv­a­lent to one tea­spoon of dried herbs.

Store dried herbs in air-tight jars in a cool, dark kitchen cabi­net to main­tain their aro­matic qual­i­ties.

Use dried herbs well within one year. Look out for recipes on how to use herbs and spices, or check out my nu­tri­tion cook­ing videos on my YouTube chan­nel In­dra’s Healthy In­dul­gences for sim­ple recipes and ideas.

Many of us re­sort to deep-fry­ing fish and chicken — hence they have be­come peren­nial favourite foods for many. Many of my clients choose the fried chicken or fish when eat­ing their nasi cam­pur (mixed rice) be­cause of their taste per­cep­tion that it will be the best, safest tast­ing choice out of the other dishes.

Deep-fry­ing food in­creases its fat con­tent. Did you know that there are other cook­ing meth­ods that ac­tu­ally nat­u­rally en­hance and in­ten­sify aro­matic flavours in food with­out us­ing so much oil?

Grilling or sear­ing your fish, chicken or meat deep­ens the rich flavours in pro­tein foods.

When mak­ing food with a broth, don’t throw all the cut meat and veg­eta­bles into a pot of wa­ter to boil at high heat.

To truly bring out the flavour in your soupy dishes and stews, sim­mer the bones, meat, onions and gar­lic on low heat to con­cen­trate their flavours in the liq­uid.

Af­ter that, add in other in­gre­di­ents such as veg­eta­bles that don’t need to be cooked as long.

By sim­mer­ing this way, you don’t have to re­sort to us­ing stock cubes and sea­son­ing pow­ders, which are all high in sodium.

Don’t let the cook­ing oil smoke up in your wok be­fore sautee­ing your aro­matic in­gre­di­ents such as onion, gar­lic or gin­ger.

By ac­tu­ally gen­tly heat­ing up a small amount of oil in your wok, and then adding in your aro­matic in­gre­di­ent to gen­tly caramelise, you will bring out their ro­bust flavours and nat­u­ral oil bet­ter.

Then con­tinue to add the other in­gre­di­ents. Re­mem­ber, low heat brings out the flavours bet­ter in your aro­matic in­gre­di­ents.

An­other culi­nary trick to cut down on salt is to sub­sti­tute it with soya sauce. Soya sauce has less sodium per tea­spoon than ta­ble salt.

Look for low-sodium soya sauce if it is avail­able in your su­per­mar­ket.

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