A recent study investigated changes in how we taste flavors as we age. The authors found that not only do older adults find flavors less pleasant than younger adults, they also have more difficulty identifying specific flavors.
For this study, individuals age 16 to 85 rated two different flavored drinks on pleasantness, sweetness, strength of flavor, and familiarity with the flavor. To assess participants’ ability to identify flavors, three samples of each drink were offered, each of which were colored differently. Drinks were colored with the “correct” color (the color typically associated with the flavor, i.e., strawberry flavor was colored red), an incorrect color (strawberry flavor colored orange), and colorless.
As previous research has suggested, ratings of pleasantness were inversely related to age, so that middle-aged adults rated flavors higher in pleasantness than did older adults, and young adults rated flavors higher in pleasantness than did middle-aged adults. Other important findings were that the ability to identify flavors declines with age in a similar fashion as does pleasantness. Older adults who found the drinks to be more pleasant were more likely to identify the flavor. Correctly colored drinks were also more easily identifiable.
This research has potential benefits for older adults with nutritional deficiencies. If an older adult (or an individual of any age) is better able to identify the flavor of a particular food, he or she is more likely to find it pleasant tasting, and therefore more likely to eat more of it. As the authors suggest, older adults may rely on cues other than taste (i.e., visual or textural) to identify a flavor, and enhancing these cues may lead to better flavor identification. Senior living providers may be able to enhance resident enjoyment of food served merely by improving flavor identification through better visual cues.
It was not clear whether reduced memory or other cognitive abilities were behind the decline in flavor identification with age, but this is one potential avenue for future research. Regardless of the underlying cause, it appears that enhancing identification cues is a preliminary strategy to improving the way our food tastes.
Appleton, KM and Smith E. A role for identification in the gradual decline in the pleasantness of flavors with age. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (2016); Nov;71(6): 987–994. DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbv031