A moveable feast: how taste changes with age

Posted on May 11, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Cheese platter

Did you know that your taste changes with age? I don’t mean in the sense that you now actively seek out all manner of green vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, because you’re mature enough to know that these are good for you. I’m referring to the fact that your actual taste buds change with age, which is why foods that you once loved may suddenly leave you cold.

There’s an opportunity to explore the topic of taste at the London Science Museum’s new exhibition Cravings: Can Your Food Control You?, which runs until January 2016. It’s suitable for anyone aged eight and upward, so why not take the grandkids?

Professor Charles Spence – taste science

One man who understands the science is Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University. Professor Spence is renowned as a literal tastemaker, according to Michael C. Powell, writing about “Taste Bud Hacking” at BAI.com. A serious amount of money is spent on understanding how our taste buds work the way they do. This knowledge is very important to the food and drink industry, and it certainly has an interest in how taste changes over time.

Children, milk and chocolate

Let’s rewind back to childhood and take a look at our taste buds in their infancy. We had a whopping 30,000 of them on our tongues in those days. That amount though, creates a sensory overload situation, which is why children tend to like bland foods, such as milk, and anything with sugar, particularly chocolate.

The teen years

By the time we reach the end of our teens, we’re down to about 20,000 taste buds. Apparently, children between the ages nine and 15 love “sweet, salty and extreme sour” tastes, according to Professor Spence. Teens don’t like bitter tastes, which is why when teens experiment with alcohol; they want sweet-flavoured drinks like Malibu. But by their late teens, they lose their obsession with sweetness and may even try more difficult foods, like cabbage.

 

Food samples

The robust adult taste buds

Our perception of taste is closely linked to our sense of smell and these two senses work together to produce an experience that we either find pleasing, or not. Colour, texture and sound all play a part as well. For example, black rice or “arroz negro” is popular in Spain and Italy, and although I know it’s made with squid ink, I just can’t bring myself to eat black food.

Cutlery affects flavour

Our sense of smell helps us to perceive flavour. Think about when you have a cold and your nose is blocked; food isn’t nearly so appetising when you can’t smell it. Apparently, your taste can even be affected by the type of metal cutlery you use, according to the Science Museum exhibition. In a blind taste test, researchers found that people perceived food eaten with a steel spoon to be saltier, while a gold spoon makes food saltier and sweeter.

The decline in taste and smell

Whether you use a gold spoon or plastic spoon, as an adult you enjoy more robust flavours, such as Stilton and olives, but by the time women reach 50, and men 60, the taste buds have declined to the extent that something we enjoyed in our 40s is no longer palatable. Professor Spence’s research shows that this decrease first leads to a dulling of our sensitivity to salty and sweet tastes, followed by bitter and sour flavours. Our declining sense of smell plays a part in this as well.

The elderly appetite

This decline in both taste and smell may account for the elderly lack of appetite. Research shows that older people add more sugar and salt to food to boost the flavour as their sense of smell fades. In response to this issue with the ageing taste buds, food companies are trying to create foods that taste sweeter and saltier, but at the same time have low added salt and sugar content. I must admit, it doesn’t sound terribly appetising, even if it is supposed to be healthier.

I’m not entirely sure in exactly what way my taste buds have changed in recent years, but I am quite fond of a few Brussels sprouts, and to me, eating Brussels is a sure sign of maturity!

 

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.