Tastebuds over time?

Tastebuds in the news! NPR ran a story yesterday that children’s love of sweet things might be based in their biology.  We all know that our tastes change over time, kids who refuse to eat anything green or spicy can grow up to love Thai green curry.  Our palates expand with time and exposure to new things. Kids are notorious for a dislike of bitter flavors, making an icky face after a sip of coffee or beer (that they begged to try!) But, new research shows that it’s not just exposure or cultural diet that causes our tastes to change as we age, children around the world show strong preferences for really sweet foods.

Researchers from the Monell Center in Philadelphia shows that humans are born with a much higher preference for sweet tastes, that fades when we approach adolescence.  This might be because sweet foods are high in easily digestible calories, that young children need for rapid growth.  NPR also cited research that shows that our desire for sweet foods decreases drastically in adolescence. When our bones finish growing, sweet preferences quickly decrease to adult levels.

Our sense of taste also changes with advanced age.  Although maybe not as obvious as deteriorating hearing or sight, we start losing taste buds in middle age.  Sweet and salty tastes frequently decrease in sensitivity more than sour or bitter tastes.  However, for many people, the effects are mimimal.

About 2 million people in the US have an impaired sense of smell. Permanent or temporary, this condition, called anosmia, can seriously affect people’s ability to enjoy foods. A friend of mine with anosmia occasionally catches certain smells, but misses many others.  She never notices when something is burning on the stove, or if someone just farted. However, she appreciates more complex flavors in food than just sour or salty.  Talking with her about it reminds you just how complex and connected our senses really are.

We might take our ability to taste or smell for granted, but people who have suddenly lost these senses often report a serious sense of disconnectedness with the world around them.  In Remembering Smell, Bonnie Blodgett describes losing her sense of smell and how it changed her perceptions of the world.  We use these senses subconsciously and constantly, so I look forward to reading more research on the roles these senses play in physiology, evolution, cognition, and culture.


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