Each of us has a personal range of foods we enjoy. It could be the smooth taste of chocolate, the unique taste of a strong cheese or the spiciness of a pasta sauce.
Our preferences for some foods over others result from a complex interplay among many factors including genetics, age, early food experiences, ethnic customs, pleasantness of surroundings when trying a new food and physiological reactions to a food.
One thing is clear - the flavour of foods is a most compelling influence in shaping our food choices. And while we are attuned to nutrition messages, we often think that eating a more healthful diet means giving up tasty foods. Nutrition communicators can combat these perceptions by assuring people that healthy and delicious eating can go hand in hand.
More to taste than meets the tongue
What we commonly call the "taste" of food is really "flavour", resulting from the interaction between the senses of taste and smell. Other sensations from foods, such as the burn of a chilli, the bite of a strong peppermint or the fizz of a carbonated drink, as well as texture, temperature and appearance all add to the flavour experience.
As much as 80 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Humans can discern about 20,000 different odours and 10 or more intensities of each. Smell occurs when the odours reach the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity via two routes - inhalation through the nostrils and through the back of the mouth as we chew and swallow.
True taste occurs on the tongue. We are born with 10,000 taste buds located on the back, sides and the tip of the tongue, on the palate and in the throat. When taste receptor cells within the taste buds are excited by chemical stimuli, they detect five primary sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and "umami", the savoury taste of glutamate found in protein foods and mono-sodium glutamate.
Taste changes through the ages
Taste buds first appear when a foetus is seven or eight weeks old and are functioning by the third trimester of pregnancy. A variety of tastes and flavours are transmitted through amniotic fluid to the foetus. Infants seem to experience the primary tastes to varying degrees. Breast-fed infants receive early exposure to a variety of flavours because breast milk carries the flavour of foods and spices eaten by the mother. Whether these and other early taste experiences affect food preferences later in life is the subject of ongoing research.
Taste declines with age
At about age 60, even healthy people begin to experience a modest decline in taste perception and more dramatic declines in smell.
Dulled taste and smell often result in a waning appetite, which puts the elderly at risk of malnutrition, weight loss and increased susceptibility of disease. Amplifying food flavours and providing pleasant food textures for older people can enhance their appetites and help improve their nutritional and immune status. One possibility to increase food flavours is using fruit juices, spices and herbs.
"People are not likely to eat foods that they do not enjoy", says dietitian Renate Frenz, Honorary Chairman of the European Federation of the Associations of Dietitians (EFAD). "We all have individual personal food preferences and do not necessarily taste foods in the same way. Recognising personal taste preferences is therefore important when advising individuals.
Balancing individualised nutritional recommendations with health needs, lifestyle factor and taste preferences are all part of effective nutritional counselling. Finding healthy foods that taste good is fundamental for long term success in maintaining a healthy diet."
Taste Tips, Tricks and Techniques
Nutrition counsellors can maximise the effectiveness of their advice by incorporating the following suggestions:
- Plan meals that include a wide palette of colours and shapes for eye-appeal and a variety of textures and temperatures for tongue appeal.
- Increase food flavours by adding small amounts of intense-flavoured ingredients such as fresh herbs, spices or fruit juices such as lemon juice.
- Encourage older adults to alternate between bites of food with different tastes, temperatures and textures.
- Be adventurous! Expand your tastes to enjoy a variety of foods