Anyone who has ever relished eating a perfectly ripe peach knows that it is a full sensory experience. The sight of the bright orange skin, the fuzz of the skin, the scent and sound of that juicy, sweet first bite engages all five senses.
Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste give the human brain clues about food before the first bite. Steam coming from a hot bowl, the sound of a refrigerator opening, the smell of spices, and the weight of a full plate in hand all contribute to the experience of eating.
The final sense, taste, completes it. Genetics influence why people perceive taste differently. Individual food preferences start to show up as early as 6 months old.
“Genes have a major effect on taste receptors in your body,” says Lisa Peterson, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator, who recently led a program on taste. “These receptors send signals between your stomach and brain, and play a huge role in why some people prefer sweet over salty flavors, or why some can’t stand spicy or bitter foods.”
Take cilantro, for example. Most people who dislike cilantro say it tastes metallic or like soap. For those who enjoy it, cilantro is the epitome of freshness with its bright flavor.
The difference lies in genes. Some people’s genetics allow the receptors in their noise to pick up on cilantro’s soapy aroma while others can’t detect it.
Age is another factor that can alter the eating experience. At age 30, adults have 245 taste buds on each of the four taste zones. By age 70, this number drops to about 80. As a result, many older adults add sugar or salt in hopes of regaining those lost flavors.
“That’s one of the big issues. Once we start losing that sense of taste or smell, it’s easy to add too much salt or sugar to what we’re eating to try and taste something,” says Peterson. “It works, but it also puts us at risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more health concerns. We just need to find ways to enhance our food without putting any additional stress on our bodies.”
Food is a central part of social and cultural lives. Not being able to fully taste and enjoy food can lead to boredom at mealtimes, poor appetite, malnutrition, and unintentional weight loss.
“Our taste and smell help anchor us to our experiences,” says Peterson. “When that connection is gone, we lose interest not only in our food, but also in activities because memory is so closely linked to our ability to taste and smell.”
Peterson says there are small adjustments to meals that savor flavors and aromas. Adding fresh lemon juice to dishes, such as meat, soups, or even fruit, boosts natural flavors. To avoid additional salt or sugar, add seasonings, such as pepper and thyme, or herbs, such as basil and parsley, for extra flavor. Even condiments such as fresh salsa add new tastes.
The full presentation, “Five Flavors: How the Palate Changes,” is available to watch online at go.illinois.edu/5Flavors.