03/18/2014 06:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Our Sense of Taste Changes as We Age

by Michael Y. Park


As a kid, Cat Baldwin loved sugar. She saved up her allowance for Pop-Tarts and soda. When she ate candy bars, she had to have three in one go. She was the evil mastermind behind the periodic, mysterious disappearances of entire tubs of cake frosting from the kitchen cabinets. When Easter came around, she wasn't satisfied with finishing off her own basket of sweets and would raid her brother's. And Halloween? An annual family crisis. Cat's sweet tooth was so notorious her mother had secret spots to hide candy around the house.

"It was definitely a way of life," says Baldwin, now a 31-year-old freelance illustrator in Brooklyn.

But as she grew older, she grew disillusioned with her first love, sugar.

"If given a choice between a sweet and a bag of chips, I'll take the bag of chips every time," she says. "I just think the preference for sweets has gone way down. I quickly get overwhelmed."

Baldwin's story is probably a familiar one. Though we may not all have worshiped so fervently at the altar of sugar, nearly all humans graduate from a childhood love of sweets to more complex flavors as adults, and then again to different palates as seniors. It's a given: Our taste in food changes as we get older. But what few people understand is why.

If you've ever introduced an infant to a new flavor of baby food, you've already been caught up in the mystery of why a particular human being likes or hates a specific food. When you bite into a luscious red tomato, you're interpreting a dizzying array of signals -- physical, neurochemical, memory-based -- that ultimately help you decide whether you like tomatoes, or what combination of the five fundamental tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami) comes through for you. (There's growing support for the idea that fat is a distinct taste, too; other candidates include soapy and metallic. Spicy heat, on the other hand, involves a chemical short-circuit in our thermal detectors, and isn't considered a taste.) Our age is a major factor in how our brains read, or misread, all those signals.

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Sweet, Sweet Youth

You can say we nearly all start off with superhero powers. In fact, children are ultra-sensitive when it comes to their senses, especially to colors and texture. But some researchers say kids are super-powered when it comes to taste -- particularly bitterness, which is nature's skull-and-crossbones warning label for potential toxins. Thank evolution, which gifted humans with the enhanced ability to avoid danger while they're most vulnerable. Pregnant women also become more sensitive to bitterness (and less sensitive to salt, addressing their increased needs for sodium).

What about kids' notorious sweet tooths? Studies confirm what anyone who's ever babysat already knows, that given free reign with sugar, kids will eat the stuff straight from the bowl. Which makes for an annoyingly hyperactive evening but actually makes a lot of sense in the larger scheme of things. Until very recently in human history, children needed every bit of energy they could get to grow into adulthood, meaning that their palates are largely geared to energy-efficient foods until they hit adolescence. Sweetness is nature's shorthand for high-energy foods.

"It would stand as a tremendous evolutionary advantage for children to be able to quickly identify sources of calories," says Robin Dando, researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Food Sciences in the Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. "And tasting sweet is the evolutionary symbol of calories."

The good news is that we won't necessarily be addicted to sugar forever. The bad news? Part of that may be because our sense of taste is slowly dying. Sadly for the rest of us, our physiology is working against us on nearly every front. As we age, our taste buds stop regenerating, and our sense of smell dulls.

An average adult taster might have 10,000 taste buds in his or her mouth. A supertaster -- one of those 15 to 25 percent of the population whose tongue is extra sensitive -- might be gifted with twice as many. A non-taster, meanwhile, might have to get by with half the norm. But, as with fingers or ova, we're born with what we're going to get -- we're not going to increase our total allotment of taste buds, ever.

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But taste buds are less than half the story.

Whereas scientists generally agree that there are anywhere from four to nine basic tastes, there are thousands upon thousands of distinct aromas, only a single molecule of which you need to light up one or more of our hundreds of olfactory receptors. From an evolutionary standpoint, our sense of taste tells us whether we ought to swallow or spit out the food we put in our mouths. Our sense of smell is critical to the far more complicated tasks of telling us what that food is and finding it again later. It's our sense of smell that tells us whether we're sitting down to a meal of lamb on basmati rice or beef on jasmine rice.

Ever notice how sensitive some kids can be to strong perfumes, or turn up their noses at an overcooked, sulfurous bowl of cabbage? Yep, that's right: As with taste buds, kids have super-powered senses of smell. As the man said, youth is wasted on the young.

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