From the moment we are born our brains link flavours with experiences. When we are drinking milk from our mothers, we are often being held and comforted at the same time – this means our most inbuilt association with eating is comfort.
As we grow older, of course our preferences change – but those early food learnings linger with us. Why else would vanilla ice cream be the world’s best-selling ice cream flavour? According to Chris Luckhurst (head of research at the Marketing Clinic) vanilla ice cream is the closest adult food to breast milk.
So what happens to our taste throughout our lives?
Children: sensory overload
Infants have about 30,000 tastebuds, but by the time we reach adulthood this has decreased by two thirds. This makes eating an intense experience for very young children. There have even been suggestions that we are born with synesthesia – a condition that causes senses to be intermingled, so it could be that as children we experience food as a Technicolor, 3D, surround sound event.
Children naturally have an incredibly sweet tooth, which doesn’t tend to subside until puberty. This could account for the dislike of vegetables – children may simply be experiencing the bitter notes at a higher intensity due to their increased tastebuds. By the time their palates are more accepting of vegetables, all that nagging has led to having vegetables linked to bad experiences.
Adulthood: sophisticated but resistant to change
Once we grow up most of us naturally develop more grown up and healthier eating habits. We now appreciate stronger flavours such as olives and blue cheese, but is this due to a more sophisticated palate? Experts would argue that it is simply because we have a lower level of tastebuds, meaning the tastes are not as pungent.
As we grow older we are less likely to welcome new tastes. Nutritionists say this phenomenon is due to programming – when we get used to eating certain types of foods when we’re young, our brains are programmed to accept these flavours. Sadly with age, the brain’s ability to be trained is less efficient. This means we are more likely to stick to what we know when it comes to our diet.
Old age: smaller stomachs and dry mouths
As we continue to age, our desire to eat is reduced. There are several reasons for this, including the shrinkage of the stomach – the brain simply tells older people that they’re full faster. There’s even a change in a mechanism in the brain telling us when we need to eat or drink.
Combine this with reduced saliva flow, dentures and a weaker sense of taste and it is easy to see why eating takes a back seat in old age.
If you want to learn more about your diet and how it changes with age, it might be worth speaking to a nutritionist. For more information, please see our FAQ page.
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