What Food Manufacturers Need to Know About Aging Tastebuds

June 28, 2010

Are your taste buds aging? Our sense of taste erodes as we grow older.

Have you noticed how some foods just don't taste the same as they used to? If you are like most people, you blame the brand for changing their formula. Sometimes that's true, but more often than not it's your sense of taste and smell that has changed.

This natural phenomenon is going to create new problems and opportunities for food manufacturers as Americans age especially since 76 million Boomers who grew up on sugary and salty foods have already started to turn 50.

As babies, we have thousands of taste buds on our tongues as well as on the sides and roof of the mouth. It's why we were very sensitive to different foods. As we age, the taste buds begin to disappear from the sides and roof of the mouth, leaving taste buds mostly on our tongue. The remaining taste buds eventually become less sensitive.

It is not the little knobs dotting the surface of your tongue that are the actual taste buds. These are called papillae, and there are four kinds of them: fungiform and filiform on the front half, and foliate and vallate on the back. The actual taste buds cluster together in packs of two to 250 within the papillae.

About 75 percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. The odor molecules from food give us most of our taste sensation. Taste buds can only distinguish four tastes: bitter, sour, salty, and sweet.

A single taste bud contains taste cells representing all four taste sensations. The salty/sweet taste buds are located near the front of your tongue; the sour taste buds line the sides of your tongue; and the bitter taste buds are found at the very back of your tongue.

A different kind of sensation that we wrongly perceive as one of 'taste' comes from very hot or spicy foods like Wasabi mustard, chili peppers, the gingerols in ginger, piperin in black pepper and the various isothiocyanates in onions, mustard, radishes and horseradish.

These do not have an effect on the five types of tastes; rather the 'kick' or sensation is a function of how much pain it inflicts on nerve fibers in your mouth. Also located in the tongue's papillae, these pain fibers are actually wrapped around the taste buds. We consider them 'hot' because they stimulate only a subset of the pain fibers in your mouth, not all of them. If you ever noticed how food 'tastes' differently when you have cold or stuffy nose it is because the mucus in your nasal passages has become too thick. The air and odor molecules cannot reach your olfactory receptor cells, and no messages are sent to the brain.

The average person can discriminate between 4,000 to 10,000 different odor molecules. And we know that age takes a much greater toll on smell than on taste. Scientists have found that the sense of smell begins to decrease after age 60. Women at all ages generally have a much better sense of smell than men of the same age.

Taste bud trivia
Fun facts about the sense of taste...

  • Insects have the most highly developed sense of taste. They have taste organs on their feet, antennae, and mouthparts.
  • Fish can taste with their fins and tail as well as their mouth.
  • In general, girls have more tastebuds than boys do.
  • Taste is the weakest of the five senses.

As we become adults our sense of taste remains at roughly the same level, although our taste buds do get abuse - especially from smoking or scalding the tongue with hot beverages that dulls them.

It is true that some people are born with poor senses of taste or smell, but most lose them after an injury or illness. Loss of the sense of smell can result from polyps in the nasal cavities, sinus infections, hormonal disturbances, or dental problems. Loss of smell and taste also can be caused by exposure to certain chemicals such as insecticides or pesticides and by some medicines.

Scientists also tell us that as we get older, the olfactory bulb in the brain responsible for processing smell becomes smaller. In addition, the patch of receptors in our nose that sends information to the brain begins to thin and spread out, and may be less effective at capturing scents.

Getting older means that smells become more blunt and difficult to distinguish. As a result, our ability to taste food diminishes. As we said before, we are really only able to distinguish four tastes- salty, sweet, sour and bitter. The sense of smell enhances taste and provides those thousands of nuances that help us identify a flavor. As these senses diminish, food tastes blander.

Medical professionals remind us that some common illnesses like allergies and nasal infections as well as some diseases can effect taste, but if for whatever reason your sense of taste or smell rapidly changes, see your physician immediately. A sudden loss of smell or rapid decline in smell can signal a medical problem.