The aging palate
All of us enjoy good food; it is one of the most pleasurable parts of our lives. From the moment we are born, we seek out the tastes that make us feel good. As children, we have strong opinions about food but have trouble articulating our sensitivity to new tastes, textures and colors. As adults, our palate matures and ages, and we learn to appreciate new and unusual flavors that we may have shied away from as kids. In our golden years, we struggle with weight, medication, special diets and food restrictions that inhibit our enjoyment of food. As this particular demographic of older citizens increases in numbers, it is important to understand their dietary needs and food preferences, as well as the changing nature of their palates.
All Tongues Are Different
The number of taste buds someone has varies from person to person for no discernible reason. These small taste receptors on the tongue, known as papillae, have the ability to perceive sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami—a heretofore relatively unknown taste sensation originally identified in Japan. This fifth taste is often described as a meaty sensation or savory taste, commonly found in aged and fermented food, tomatoes and beef. For centuries, chefs have added tomato paste to the drippings of a roast to make the sauce. We now understand that combining these two umami-rich ingredients adds to the overall flavor of the dish.
Sensitivity to taste is derived from the number of taste buds on the tongue. An “average taster,” comprising most of the population, has about 5,000. Those with only 2,000 to 3,000 are considered “non-tasters,” whereas some “super tasters”—two-thirds of whom are women—are endowed with more than 10,000, and are, by far, the most sensitive to taste and flavor.
Thousands of years ago, when we lived in tribal groups, the men were hunters, while the women gathered and foraged for food. Game was scarce and the catch would be shared equally with the entire group. Fruits, nuts and wild grains, which made up the majority of the calories, were collected by the women. With their highly developed sense of taste, they became the first line of defense against rotten and poisonous foods.
Aging Taste Buds
Children enjoy more sensitive taste buds, which, until middle age, have the ability to regenerate every couple of weeks. After the age of 40, this rate of regeneration decreases and our ability to taste is compromised. Our tongue and taste buds age along with the rest of our body.
With this in mind, the key to cooking for this age group is more, not less, flavor. For years, chefs had an all-or-nothing approach to seasoning, reaching for the fat, salt and sugar to make food taste good. Gradually, they have learned to manipulate and coax these delicate flavors out of the food by using a variety of ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors. For example, applying the right amount of heat to a food can transform its flavor and texture in what is referred to as the maillard reaction. Coffee, chocolate, bread, chicken and beer are just a few of the foods and beverages that benefit from this type of browning and rich flavor development.
Taste and Aroma = Flavor
Although very efficient in detecting the four basic tastes, taste buds are unable to distinguish a food’s flavor. To understand this, hold your nose closed and eat a piece of candy. The flavor you perceive should be sweet, sour, salty or bitter—nothing else. Now release your nose. What you will taste is the candy’s flavor. This delicate interaction of aroma and taste can be used to stimulate appetite. One successful approach to increase sales of appetizers is to have a server walk around the dining room with a pan of sautéed onions and garlic. The same technique works for dessert. The aroma of chocolate or apples and cinnamon might just be enough to entice an undecided customer. This is a perfect way to encourage seniors to eat healthy food—an occupation they often forego because food has stopped tasting as good.
Contrast and Balance
Contrasting flavors and texture is another method for mastering flavor development without the use of extra fat and salt. The reason most people enjoy a hot dog with relish, ketchup and mustard is contrasts. A hot dog contains meat, salt, spices, 25 percent fat and smoke. The sweet-and-sour effect of the condiments contrasts the flavor by cutting through the fat to create a powerful combination. Understanding that opposite flavors act to heighten the overall success of the dish is an important point to remember when preparing food for seniors. Sauces, dips, relish, chutneys, pickles and fruits can all be served with a myriad of center-of-the-plate offerings to increase the flavor profile and give the customer additional choices that are perceived as valuable add-ons. Developing dishes with contrasting cooking methods in mind is another technique for successful flavor development. Serving a grilled steak with grilled vegetables and grilled potatoes is not as effective as contrasting the grilled steak with boiled potatoes, braised vegetable, and fried shallots or onions. Following this through with a variety of sauces allows for a complex, well-engineered dining experience.
Interestingly, sodium is the only mineral we crave and is critical for the regulation of our body’s fluids. Historically, salt was difficult to obtain and was a valuable commodity. Without salt in the ancient kitchen, proteins including meats, fish and cheese were highly perishable. Today, the majority of the sodium we eat comes from processed and fast foods. The Centers for Disease Control daily guideline for a healthy person is 2,300 mg of sodium a day, and 1,500 mg or less if you:
are over 40 years of age,
are an African-American, or
have high blood pressure.
In addition, it is interesting to note that one teaspoon of table salt equals 2,400 mg of sodium, which is already 100 mg over the recommended daily allowance. The majority of Americans consume more than twice this amount daily.
Most professional kitchens use kosher salt, which is free of additives like silicoaluminate, dextrose and iodine. Its large crystals make it easy to use because the flat sides of each grain adhere to food surfaces and absorb liquid. Although all salt is marine-based, sea salt is evaporated from the ocean and takes on the mineral-rich flavor of the water from which it is collected.
Seasoning with Salt for Low-Sodium Diets
Sea salt can be effectively used for low-sodium diets by adding it to food at the very end of plating. Foods contain natural amounts of sodium, so it is important to use nutritional analysis programs in developing accurate low-sodium dishes. Once this analysis is done, the trick to restricted-sodium cooking is to measure any remaining salt and use it to finish the dish. An immediate burst of flavored and textured sea salt makes a strong flavor statement to the consumer who is accustomed to having the salt buried in the food. Chefs may find it difficult to cook with no added salt, but this technique of applying it last is an accurate and effective way to season food and make it appealing.
Make the Flavors Count
The world pantry encompasses highly flavored healthy foods that can be used to create wonderful dishes. Herbs, spices, citrus and vinegars are all flavorful and low in calories and sodium. Fresh foods, legumes and grains, lean meats and fish contain the most nutrients and are colorful and delicious.
It should be noted that not all senior citizens have diminished sensitivity to taste. Many people are blessed with acute taste receptors that last a lifetime. However, chefs and food professionals have a responsibility to understand their customers’ needs regardless of their age. With the population living many years longer than our ancestors, it behooves us to preserve this trend by providing great-tasting, well-balanced, and above all, healthful food.