Totally Tasteless

Reader Erika poses a very interesting question:

So as we get older and find we need to add more hot sauce, more seasonings, etc, is it because we have killed off our taste buds or desensitized them? And if it is desensitizing- is that the same phenomenon as the “sophisticated” palate mentioned earlier?

A little known fact about the cells in/on our taste buds is that we replace them completely about once every ten days. So they don’t “wear out” in the sense that the same flavor-perceiving cells we’re born with get deadened from overuse. The problem is that as we get older we don’t replace our taste buds as quickly, so our sensitivity isn’t as sharp.

Taste-sensing nerves up in the nose and sinuses also don’t fire with quite the rapidity they once did as we get into our 60’s and 70’s.

All of which is not to say we’re all doomed to need huge doses of salt and pepper on our rice pudding in our dotage. Interestingly, one of the keys to keeping our senses lively is to keep our diets rotating, so all the various parts of the taste-sensing hardware package continue to get use. Other tips include (of course) quitting or avoiding smoking, and not eating foods when they’re either very hot or cold, which deadens flavors.

Something else that’s frequently overlooked is medication. As a cancer surviror (now eleven years in full remission, thanks) I’m all too familair with the effects that even mild drugs can have on the taste sense. Older people tend to take regular medication, so what is sometimes interpreted as a physical loss of taste is actually a drug side effect. Thus it makes sense for older people to speak to their doctors before jumping to any conclusions. Who knows? Maybe there are alternate therapies.

I remember back in my lymphoma days, one of my drug cocktails deadened my tongue severely. An appetizer of very hot salsa returned my sense of taste to me long enough for me to enjoy a meal. I never really learned why that worked. One doc told me it “fired” my nerve endings, another (more plausibly) believed the vinegar/heat dissolved a film that the drug therapy created on the inside surfaces of my mouth.

But wow, I had one heck of a capsaicin tolerance after six months. The Mexicans I worked with in my first bakery job could scarcely believe what the big Gringo was capable of. Talk about fiery food street cred, I had it in spades!

2 thoughts on “Totally Tasteless”

  1. On the subject of taste buds…As a part of preference and bravado I have eaten spicy and spicier food everyday of my life. Lately I have found that my taste buds fail to register the more subtle flavours and aromas especially of wine, cheese and other foods.

    Do taste buds eventually fizzle out and die? 🙁 Fail to register lower notes when they are always and constantly exposed to a cuisine high in spices and chilis?

    1. Hey Malini!

      I don’t believe that’s the case, for the reasons stated in the post. But I wonder if all the hot food has steadily conditioned both your hardware and software to expect that same blast from day to day. I’m betting you can re-train your system to appreciate subtlety. People do “train their brains” in all sorts of ways, my feeling is you can as well!

      – Joe

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