Have you ever heard a friend or family member say their once-favorite foods just don’t taste the same? It’s more likely that their sense of smell, not taste, may be changing.
The average adult has approximately 10,000 taste buds on the tongue, throat and mouth responding to five distinct taste perceptions: sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami (a savory taste). But olfaction, or smell, accounts for about 80 percent of the pleasant — and unpleasant — flavors. Aromas released from food pass from the mouth through the back of the throat to the millions of olfactory receptor cells in the nasal cavity. One may taste the sweetness of sugar, but the pleasing perceptions of mint and cinnamon come mostly from smell. Other sensory responses contribute, too — including mouthfeel, temperature and the food’s visual appeal.
As with many events of aging, changes in flavor perception also vary from one person to another, but eventually happen to almost everyone. Although often unnoticeable at first, olfaction begins to diminish during one’s 50s and continues to wane with each decade. By age 80, olfaction may have declined by 60 percent or more, but rarely disappears completely. Among the reasons are gradual losses of nasal nerve cells that detect aromas, hormonal changes, a decline in nerve signals to the brain and less mucus production in the nose. (Mucus helps keep aromas in the nose long enough to be detected.) Some aromas or odors are affected more than others; these differences, too, depend on the individual.
The number of taste buds — and, just as importantly, the neural response to taste and the amount of saliva — also gradually diminish starting around age 50 for women and a little later for men. Saliva flow enhances flavor as food’s components dissolve in the mouth. Given good health, a loss of taste appears to be more modest than the loss of smell. According to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, recent research indicates no age-related decline in the sensitivity to sweetness and relatively small declines in sensitivity to salty, sour and bitter tastes; umami sensitivity hasn’t been widely studied.
Age isn’t the only reason for a loss of flavor perception. Some sinus conditions, colds, head injuries, other health conditions, medications, radiation and chemotherapy, smoking and chemical particles in the air may affect — and potentially accelerate the loss of — smell and taste. For boomers, contributing health conditions may start to show up about now.
A natural response may be to boost flavor with saltier ingredients or by adding sugar, but this is especially problematic for those with high blood pressure or diabetes. Luckily for the aging palate, there are many ways to boost flavor that don’t require adding more salt or sugar.
Use high-quality ingredients at their peak and store, handle and cook them with care; overcooking destroys flavor components. Try ingredients with bolder flavors, such as sharp-aged cheese, garlic, onion, concentrated fruit sauce, flavored vinegars and oils, or chilies at your preferred level of heat. Lift and balance flavor with acidic ingredients: perhaps a squeeze of citrus (lemon, lime or orange), a splash of cider, wine, or vinegar or fruit such as berries, cranberries, grapes, pineapple or pomegranate as a recipe ingredient.
Use fresh or dried herbs with bolder aromas, such as basil, chives, cilantro, rosemary and sage. (One tablespoon fresh equals 1 teaspoon dried.) When stored properly in a cool, dry, dark place and used within a year, dried herbs have a full flavor “bouquet”— and crumbling dried herbs releases more aroma. Whole spices such as allspice, cloves, coriander and cumin can be toasted to bring out more of their aromatic natural oils before grinding them. Try toasting nuts, too!
Substitute soy sauce for salt in more than Asian dishes. Reduced sodium or not, soy sauce has less sodium per teaspoon than salt — and adds umami and aroma. And unless you’re sensitive to it, consider seasoning with monosodium glutamate instead of salt; MSG has one-third the sodium as the same amount of salt.
Many cooking techniques can enhance aromatic and other sensory experiences, too. Intensify the flavors of fish, poultry and meat with high-heat cooking: broiling, grilling or searing. The Maillard reaction — when an amino acid and a sugar react at high heat — deepens the rich flavor and brown color of these protein foods.
Reduce meat, poultry and fish stock to concentrate their flavors by simmering (not boiling) to brighten the flavor notes. Caramelize onions by cooking them slowly over low heat in a small amount of oil to bring out the natural sweetness, intensify the aroma and impart a golden hue.
Remember that visual appeal enhances flavor experiences, too, so make food look as good as its flavor. Incorporate bright colors as well as different shapes and textures, nicely arranged.
One final tip: Slow down to savor the flavors! Chewing food longer releases more flavor molecules, which travel through the mouth into the nasal passages.