I AM the youngest (unexpected at that!) in my family. By the time I was growing up, my parents where already retired, so I understood very early on the health challenges when people age.

Health-related issues that we take for granted are very real for an ageing person in their day-to-day living.

One thing we rarely give a second thought to is ageing taste buds which have an impact on a person’s taste perception of the food and drinks they consume. That is why you may notice that as you get older, flavours that you once loved may not taste the same as before.

Why does food taste perception matter?

Well, the main reason is it can have a deep effect on food enjoyment and an interest in eating in the elderly.

As food is shared and communal within a family, it can cause disgruntlement when hurtful words are uttered, for instance, that so-and-so’s cooking is tasteless, etc.

I see this in many families of my clients where spouses and family members are trying their level best to prepare healthier meals so that that a family member can better manage their illness — only to be met with strong resistance to comply because the food does not taste as nice.

But with a better understanding of what appeals to our taste buds and appetite, we will be better at doing what it takes to help our family members eat well.

Here are some tips I’d like to share with you:

Our mouth, tongue and throat are home to an average of 10,000 taste buds. These taste buds detect five main flavours — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and a newly-discovered savoury taste element known as umami.

Besides these taste buds, our sense of smell also plays a very significant role in whetting our appetites as it indicates whether the flavour of a food is going to be pleasant or unpleasant.

Think of when a cake is being baked. The aroma of the vanilla, butter, eggs and sugar indicate the cake is going to be delicious when it gets out of the oven but once the cake gets burnt, the charred smell puts us off instantly!

Other senses that contribute to our appetite is the pleasantness of the food in the mouth, the temperature of the food served and the visual look of the dish.

Changes in flavour perception is inevitable as we get older, and varies with each individual. The changes can be so subtle that it often goes unnoticed. Our sense of smell starts to lessen by the time we enter our 50s.

Contributing reasons for this are the loss of nerve cells that detect aromas in our nose, hormone changes, the lessening of nerve signals to our brains and a lower production of mucus.

Our sense of smell will continue to diminish with every decade as we age. By the time we are in our 80s, our sense of smell may likely lessen by about 60 per cent but it never totally goes away. Our taste buds and saliva also slowly start to diminish as we enter our 50s and beyond.

Ageing is one factor in all these changes. But do be aware that some other health conditions and lifestyle habits — regardless of age — do change your smell and taste perception as well.

You can experience a loss of flavour perception if you have chronic sinus, are down with a bad cold, have suffered head injuries, are taking certain medications, are a smoker, or undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.

With an altered taste perception, flavours may taste bland to you. A natural reaction would be an urge to add more oil, salt or sugar to your cooking. That is not advisable, as adding too much oil, salt and sugar can worsen any chronic health condition you may have, such as being overweight, or having heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Fortunately, there are many ways to bring out the flavour in your foods.

Try these:

When the usual foods start to taste bland, don’t be afraid to try jazzing them up with some bolder flavours.

For example, try adding a slice of cheese to your usual sandwich or grated parmesan to your usual pasta. Mix vinegar, olive oil and a touch of honey to make a zesty dressing for your salad. Squeeze some citrus fruit into your glass of water or sprinkle your cooked dish with a little sliced cut fresh chilli to add subtle heat.

All these bold-tasting foods help to heighten and engage the various taste buds in your mouth to make them taste better.

Liberally use herbs and spices in your cooking. Herbs and spices not only add flavour but also heighten your sense of smell by contributing an exquisite aroma as well.

Herbs and spices can turn the perception of bland food to something much more palatable. Our local supermarkets now sell a good variety of fresh and dried herbs. Do check them out in the vegetable aisle.

Just remember that one tablespoon of fresh herbs is equivalent to one teaspoon of dried herbs.

Store dried herbs in air-tight jars in a cool, dark kitchen cabinet to maintain their aromatic qualities.

Use dried herbs well within one year. Look out for recipes on how to use herbs and spices, or check out my nutrition cooking videos on my YouTube channel Indra’s Healthy Indulgences for simple recipes and ideas.

Many of us resort to deep-frying fish and chicken — hence they have become perennial favourite foods for many. Many of my clients choose the fried chicken or fish when eating their nasi campur (mixed rice) because of their taste perception that it will be the best, safest tasting choice out of the other dishes.

Deep-frying food increases its fat content. Did you know that there are other cooking methods that actually naturally enhance and intensify aromatic flavours in food without using so much oil?

Grilling or searing your fish, chicken or meat deepens the rich flavours in protein foods.

When making food with a broth, don’t throw all the cut meat and vegetables into a pot of water to boil at high heat.

To truly bring out the flavour in your soupy dishes and stews, simmer the bones, meat, onions and garlic on low heat to concentrate their flavours in the liquid.

After that, add in other ingredients such as vegetables that don’t need to be cooked as long.

By simmering this way, you don’t have to resort to using stock cubes and seasoning powders, which are all high in sodium.

Don’t let the cooking oil smoke up in your wok before sauteeing your aromatic ingredients such as onion, garlic or ginger.

By actually gently heating up a small amount of oil in your wok, and then adding in your aromatic ingredient to gently caramelise, you will bring out their robust flavours and natural oil better.

Then continue to add the other ingredients. Remember, low heat brings out the flavours better in your aromatic ingredients.

Another culinary trick to cut down on salt is to substitute it with soya sauce. Soya sauce has less sodium per teaspoon than table salt.

Look for lower-sodium soya sauce if it is available in your supermarket.

Grilling your fish deepens the rich flavours in protein foods.

Indra Balaratnam is a consultant dietitian who believes in simple, practical ways to eating well and living healthy. She can be reached at indra.balaratnam@gmail.com

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