The Importance of Taste in Staying Healthy

Our sense of taste and smell can have a big impact on how healthy our diet is, and it is something that is often overlooked. Think to the last time you had a head cold and your sense of smell was dulled. Food becomes bland and boring. We lose our appetite as it is often the smell of food that makes our mouth water and makes us ready to eat.

The myriad of volatile compounds that fill our noses and our nasal cavity from our mouth when we eat is incredible.  These blend with the crude taste sensations – bitter, salty, sweet, sour and umami – to make a wonderful symphony of flavours that we experience.  When these are out of reach food becomes bland and less interesting.  Eating can become a bit joyless and hard work. We eat less or we eat more foods that are salty and sweet as these tastes are the most persistent when sense of taste is dull.

Covid-19 often causes people to lose their sense of taste and smell. Other illnesses can have this effect. It affects cancer patients, some medication for a range of conditions can affect taste and smell, conditions that affect the brain or nervous system can too, such as Parkinson’s Disease or MS or dementia. As we age, our sense of taste and smell diminish – everyone is different but for some older adults it can really make food bland.

Eating well is so important to recovery when we are ill, be that recovering from Covid-19, regaining our strength after a round of chemo or managing a long term chronic health condition. It is also really important as we age. If our ability to enjoy food is compromised and appetite is blunted food becomes less effective at being the source of nutrients that give us strength and help our bodies mend. We often end up eating less than we need or we lose the variety of foods, maybe resulting in eating more salty, fatty, sugary foods that are less nutrient dense.

How do we continue eating well when we can’t taste or smell our food? Here are a few tips:

1 Make the most of the big 5.

Most people who have lost their taste have actually lost their sense of smell and can still taste the 5 tastes. Using these and combining them can boost the eating experience.

Try strong foods that you never liked before you lost your sense of taste.  You might now find that they are tasty and appealing, as you may not be able to taste what made you dislike these foods before.

2 We also eat with our eyes

Try to make food appealing visually.  Using a few different coloured fruits and vegetables and taking a bit more time to plate up so it looks good may help increase the appeal of the food.   

3 Make use of textures

Lots of contrasts are really good.  Crunchy, chewy, gooey, crisp, silky etc.  Some examples:

  • Silky aubergine with gooey mozzarella in a melanzane parmigiana (vegetable lasagne).  
  • Crispy poppadoms with curry.  
  • Crunchy veg with smooth mash and tender salmon with a pesto crispy crust.  
  • Using a strong cheese for gratins like cauliflower cheese with a crispy crust of breadcrumbs and seeds. 

4 Take care with temperature.

Very cold foods and very hot foods dull flavours so avoid eating food straight from the fridge or the oven.

5 Make use of spices

Chilli, ginger, garlic, herbs, smoked paprika, cumin, ras-el-hanut, cinnamon etc but also things with strong flavours such as anchovies, olives, capers, pickles, and pesto can really pep up a sandwich or a salad. Wasabi, mustard and horseradish that tingle the back of the nose can also add some zing into a meal.

Watch out for sugar and salt – not too much!

Take care with the salt and sugar content of condiments and strong tasting foods.  Salty and sweet are the two tastes that seem to persist most and so it can be easy to reach for these to get taste from your food.  Just be mindful that you don’t rely on these too much as sugar and salt are two things that we don’t need too much of.

What is Umami?  The word umami comes from Japanese and means ‘pleasant, savoury taste’.  It is generally associated with ‘meaty’ or ‘earthy’ flavours.  Foods rich in Umami include meats, anchovies, mushrooms, spinach, celery, ripe tomatoes, fermented foods like aged cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce and miso.  Adding these foods is an easy way to make dishes more tasty.

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