Does getting older change our sense of smell and taste? Think back to the time when you first started tasting wine. Do you now dislike something you used to love, or vice-versa?
Most people think that our tastes are relatively fixed once we reach adulthood. However, there is also a long-held belief in the wine industry that as consumers age, their taste changes. Taste is such an intricate sensory experience, one we perhaps don’t pay enough attention to, considering how much it can transform over a lifetime. As we get older, most of us experience some taste changes. We may be eating a lot more food now than we did when we were younger or maybe we don’t like certain foods we used to enjoy. Taste, while experienced most pronouncedly in the mouth, is the product of activity happening in the sensors and cells of the physical body, neuro-chemical activation and memory, and it depends greatly on our sense of smell.
When people think about growing older, they may worry about worsening vision and hearing. But they probably don’t think to add taste and smell to the list. Our tastes can and do change over time for a variety of reasons. As we grow out of babyhood into childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, our senses lose the sharp edge they started off with.
Children tend to like plain foods, such as milk and anything with sugar, particularly chocolate. Until very recently, it was acknowledged that children needed every bit of energy they could get to grow into adulthood, meaning that their palates are largely geared to energy-efficient foods until they hit adolescence. Apparently, children between the ages nine and 15 love “sweet, salty and extremely sour” tastes. Young teenagers generally don’t like bitter tastes, which is why when they experiment with alcohol, they prefer sweet-flavoured drinks. But by their late teens, they lose their obsession with sweetness and may even try more difficult foods, like cabbage.
Let’s go over some basics to explain why our taste senses change. Our tongue can distinguish between five different tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. We receive these sensations via tiny receptors on our taste buds, which then get sent to our brain.
Our perception of taste is closely linked to our sense of smell and these two senses work together to produce an experience that we either find pleasing, or not. Think about when you have a cold and your nose is blocked; food isn’t nearly so appetizing when you can’t smell it. It’s worth noting that flavour and taste are not the same thing. Sugar, a taste, and strawberry, a flavour, are detected using different sensory systems. Taste is experienced via the gustatory (“taste”) receptors, the taste buds; meanwhile, flavour is experienced through the olfactory (“smell”) receptors.
Smell and taste play a role in food and wine enjoyment and safety. A delicious meal or pleasant aroma can improve social interaction and enjoyment of life. Smell and taste also allow you to detect danger, such as spoiled food, gases and smoke.
Individually, each taste bud goes through a constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that lasts about two weeks. The number of taste buds decreases as we age. Once we hit middle age, the buds continue to die and be replaced, but a smaller number regenerate as the years go by. Research showed that by the time women reach 50, and men 60, the taste buds have declined to the extent that something we enjoyed in our 40’s is no longer palatable. Sensitivity to the five tastes often declines after age 60.
Our sense of smell can also diminish, especially after age 70. Basically, our foods don’t taste as strong as they use to. Different flavours are better tolerated because our senses diminish from having less taste buds. Consequently, our personal preferences change as we get older, but there is also a physiological reason why we start to like different foods as we age.
The decrease in the senses of smell and taste occurs gradually, and many people do not realize what is happening. The ability to smell fades much more than the ability to taste. Taste is our most stable sense of the two. There is some evidence the number of taste buds declines with age, but people may not notice this because they’re scattered throughout your mouth. If you add in the physical sensations of texture, you can still recognize much from a mouthful of wine. It becomes harder to discriminate among smells and particular aromas that we experience reduced sensitivity.
A closer look into the levels of our taste thresholds associated with the five flavours mentioned above confirms that some flavours need more and others less quantity in order to taste them. Research findings showed that firstly our sensitivity to salty and sweet tastes is reduced. This is followed by bitter and sour flavours reduction. Our declining sense of smell plays a part in this as well.
It has also been observed that older people add more sugar and salt to food to boost the flavour as their sense of smell fades. Also apparently bitterness has the lowest taste threshold, so we only need a tiny amount of it before we can taste it.
Taste is not just determined by the gustatory qualities of the food or drink. It is also substantially influenced by the state of your mouth. Exposure to smoke, for example, can reduce taste buds. Likewise, drinking boiling hot liquids can damage taste buds, leading to decreased taste sensations. Many women report a heightened sense of smell during pregnancy. Even the modest changes in altitude associated with plane travel may be sufficient to change sensitivity for some tastes. Living in a polluted environment, liver problems and diabetes as well as sinus infections, ear infections and viruses like flu play significant roles in declining sensory perceptions through cell death.
We also know that the combination and activation of taste buds varies from person to person, and affects the intensity of taste one experiences. What we prefer early on and what we come to prefer later in life will vary by person, experience and palate. Smell sensitivity varies widely from individual to individual thanks to quirks of physiology. Some people are “smell blind” to certain chemicals, such as TCA, or cork taint, for example.
The good news is that we can train our palate to like what we would like it to, especially if we have an external motivator to try it. We can condition ourselves to like things. As we age, we are more likely to consciously try new foods with the intention of enjoying them. Gradually food and enjoyment become more a matter of mind and memory than physiological experience. This is how we can develop “acquired” tastes. Furthermore, what we eat on a regular basis shapes our taste inclinations. If we eat lots of salt, we need more salt the next time to approximate the same experience.
Enjoying a glass of wine is a pleasure we like to think won’t fade as we get older. Our wine-tasting skills might even get better with time. There is plenty of research confirming that consumers have different wine preferences based on their genetics. Hyper-sensitive tasters prefer sweeter and less tannic wines, whilst tolerant wine consumers desire larger tannins and higher alcohol wines. Furthermore, consumers of different ages tend to have varying preferences in wine. Evidence showed that young adults liked lighter and sweeter style of wines, and then move to more flavourful or complex wines later in life. Research indicates some of us will be lucky and will hang on to most of the abilities we already have, while others will face a downhill slide in our powers of perception. All this is highly individual and a gradual decline in sensitivity may not always be obvious.
Change is not all bad, even if difficult to adjust to at first. Our brains are wired to make new connections. It is not unusual for someone to come to prefer highly aromatic whites later in life. Brain scans of perfumers have found that the olfactory parts of their brains actually grew more developed as they got older, not the other way around, as with most people. That suggests that actively differentiating aromas and seeking out new ones may help reverse the normal effects of ageing on the sense of smell. You may, in other words, be able to teach yourself to get more flavour from food as you get older.
Wine professionals may compensate for a lessened ability to nose out nuances by relying on their experienced palates and detailed taste memories. The vast number of wines they have tasted from around the world invokes up sense memories which they most likely never had when they were younger. This is one way that age can be a positive factor in how our brains read smell and taste signals. This explains why scores of older winemakers, importers, brokers and sommeliers are still using their noses and taste buds to make critical decisions on wines – a fact that should give ageing wine lovers reason to continue to have confidence in their own wine opinions.
Memory also augments our powers of smell discrimination. The ability to detect and identify thousands of different odours depends on how much training each individual has had. Research findings point out that older people who consume between one and six alcoholic drinks a week have a “significantly” better ability to recall memories, so it is actually possible to fight the decay of our senses with training. Older people judging wine in competitions are claiming the use experience to compensate for any reduction of their senses. And this helps them to live better, too, because an active sense of smell makes them feel safer and calmer.
It is evident that there are many factors that can alter taste perceptions, ranging from an individual’s age to the temperature of the food or wine. These variables are extremely important for food and beverage industry professionals to keep in mind when evaluating and developing new products. Appreciating a glass of wine is a pleasure we like to think won’t fade as we get older. Our wine-tasting skills might even get better with time. However, with age, hair turns grey, skin wrinkles, and hearing and vision often deteriorate, so it’s no surprise that the ability to smell and taste can fade, too.
It has been said that “the only constant in the universe is change”. Some of us tend to experience the evolution more dramatically than others, and we can only hope we all change for the better. Our tastes in wine are subject to change as we get older, gain more knowledge and begin to appreciate the refinements of what we are drinking. As we grow older and change, we should search for more balance and elegance in the wines we taste or drink. So my advice is: if you want to live a better life, seek the pleasure of smell.
And wine is a great product to smell!