Taste is a complicated experience involving a lot more than the taste buds on your tongue. For example, there is a reason we say that a food “looks good enough to eat.” As one of the first mental stimuli the brain receives, appearance – how we see the food – influences flavor expectations and, consequently, enjoyment (or not). Color and texture also give us clues about whether or not a food is safe to eat.
Aroma is also a key component of taste. Chemicals in food that dissolve in the air can be detected by the smell receptors in your nose. (Vinegar dissolves in air and can be smelled; sugar, however, does not and thus cannot be smelled). Your taste buds sense only sour, salty, bitter, sweet and savory. Most of what we call “flavor” in food is actually due to its smell. The brain puts together information from taste and smell receptors (along with information about appearance, texture and temperature) to produce an overall flavor sensation.
Try this experiment. Close your eyes and pick up a jellybean. Don’t look at the color. Use the thumb and forefinger of one hand to pinch off your nose and prevent volatile chemicals in your mouth from reaching the smell receptors in your nose. With the other hand, place the jellybean in your mouth and chew it for 10 or 15 seconds. Keep your nose pinched the whole time. Try to determine the flavor of the jellybean. Not so easy. After 10 or 15 seconds, take your hand off your nose, continue chewing the jellybean and breathe normally. Can you determine the flavor of the jellybean now?
It is estimated that more than 2 million Americans have a smell and taste disorder. Some loss of the ability to taste and smell comes with aging. But other factors can contribute as well, including nasal and sinus irritants/allergies, some medications, certain vitamin deficiencies, chemotherapy/radiation, smoking, tooth decay, head/facial injuries, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. This loss can lead to decreased appetite and poor nutrition – even depression. People who have lost ability to fully detect flavor may add too much salt or sugar to their food, which is a problem for those with high blood pressure or diabetes.
If you or a loved one are experiencing an aged-related loss of taste and smell, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian who can help you learn to use healthful herbs, spices and other flavor-enhancers. (Click for information on using herbs and spices to replace salt). Your doctor can also check your medications and oral and nasal health to determine if they are impairing your ability to smell or taste. And needless to say, don’t smoke!
Enjoying food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Don’t let an impaired sense of taste and smell that can be re-invigorated keep you or a loved one from the flavor of life.
Did you try the jellybean test? Let us know if you have noticed any changes in your sense of taste over the years. Leave a comment or a tip others can use about how to make food taste better.