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As a child, I remember my grandmother adding spoonful-upon-spoonful of sugar to her milky tea. On occasion, I would pick up her mug by mistake and gag at the unexpected sweetness. “Why does grandma like her tea so sweet?” I would ask anyone who’d listen. With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that it was not that she necessarily had an especially sweet tooth, but rather that, as a septuagenarian, her taste-buds had already started their inevitable decline.1 In fact, many older people end up having to add unhealthy levels of seasoning to get the same taste experience as their younger counterparts. The elderly participants in one study required two or three times more salt in a bowl of tomato soup, to detect its presence. What is more, the decline in flavour perception can be particularly severe for those older individuals who are on medication. The latter may need to put as much as 12 times more salt on their food than younger adults in order to detect its presence!2

It turns out, though, that most of what we think we taste really comes from the sense of smell. The meaty, caramelised, fruity, burnt, smoky, floral notes are actually detected by our noses. Our sense of smell also changes over our lifespan. According to estimates, a third of those individuals over 60 years of age are functionally anosmic – meaning that they are unable to taste (or better said smell) anything. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done when these senses start their inevitable decline. As such, the recommendation is to stimulate the other senses more effectively at mealtimes. Adding spice can help, and playing with texture and temperature can provide additional stimulation in a dish. I would also recommend giving one’s food some sonic interest: the sound of crunch, crackle, crispy etc. can help enhance the eating experience.3 And, of course, a greater use of colour can also help add some visual interest to all manner of foods too.

We are all born liking the taste of sweetness and umami, and our responsiveness to salt taste comes after a few months. We all reject bitter and sour tasting foods at birth. We come to like the latter as a result of them being paired with something rewarding like sugar, caffeine, or alcohol, or because we see our peers enjoying them.

Our response to smells, except those with a trigeminal hit like wasabi (or the painful hit you sometimes get if you sniff a freshly open fizzy drink) are all learnt. In other words, aromas come to be associated with the tastes with which they commonly co-occur in our cuisine. That is, for example, why those of us in the west would say that vanilla, caramel, and strawberry smell sweet. Surprisingly, we start acquiring our flavour preferences while still in the womb, as a function of what our mothers consumed during pregnancy. Intriguingly, it has been suggested that sweetness is more desirable during childhood, signalling as it does the calories needed for growth.4

There is a sense in which what older people lack in terms of functioning taste buds can be compensated for, at least to some degree, by much richer memories, and associations, of how they remember foods used to taste, built-up over a lifetime of experience. It is becoming increasingly important to use nostalgia foods to help trigger memories for those who may find it difficult to remember the past. The nostalgia link, together with the salient temperature cue, perhaps helps to explain the appeal of ice-cream in old age.5 And as Anton Brillat-Savarin, the famous French gastronome noted in his early classic, The physiology of taste, published in 1835: “The pleasures of the table, belong to all times and all ages, to every country and to every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.”6 Given the continued rise of the so-called “silver dollar”,7 I would argue that it makes sense to customise one’s bakery products for the aging palate of this, the fastest growing section of the consumer market.

References below

1

Spence, C. (2012). The development and decline of multisensory flavour perception. In A. J. Bremner, D. Lewkowicz, & C. Spence (Eds.), Multisensory development (pp. 63-87). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2

Stevens, J. C., Cain, W. S., Demarque, A., & Ruthruff, A. M. (1991). On the discrimination of missing ingredients: Aging and salt flavour. Appetite, 16, 129-140.

3

That said, one needs to watch out that many older people can find it difficult to chew.

4

Desor, J. A., Greene, L. S., & Maller, O. (1975). Preferences for sweet and salty in 9- to 15-year-old and adult humans. Science, 190, 686.

5

Cockroft, S., Spillett, R., & Duell, M. (2016). ‘Our life was full of laughter until the last 48 hours when he slipped into sleep’: Paul Daniels’s tearful wife Debbie McGee reveals he spent his final days eating his favourite Magnum ice creams and singing Beatles songs. Daily Mail Online, March 17th. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3496494/Magician-Paul-Daniels-died-home-aged-77.html. See also Doets, E. L., & Kremer, S. (2016). The silver sensory experience – A review of senior consumers’ food perception, liking and intake. Food Quality and Preference, 48, 316-332.

6

Brillat-Savarin, J. A. (1835, p. 14). P/hysiologie du goût [The philosopher in the kitchen / The physiology of taste]. J. P. Meline: Bruxelles. Translated by A. Lalauze (1884), A handbook of gastronomy. London: Nimmo & Bain.

7

Anonymous (2009). Silver dollar: There is money to be made in the grey market, but it takes thought. The Economist, June 25th. http://www.economist.com/node/13888110.

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