Science - November 3, 2011

Memory can boost taste

Taste research among 700 senior citizens.

Senior citizens take part in taste tests at the Restaurant of the Future.
In spite of the aging population, very little research on taste is conducted among older people. Yet a loss of taste may play a role in undernutrition, for example. To obtain more insight into this, researchers at Food & Biobased Research are following a group of seven hundred over-55s.
Until the beginning of November, the researchers gathered information at the Restaurant of the Future using tests for smell, taste and memory in combination with a questionnaire. ‘We want to research whether people whose senses of smell and taste are not so sharp run a higher risk of becoming undernourished. We do not know enough about how to stimulate appetite or what appeals to the over-55s', explains Stefanie Kremer of Food & Biobased Research.
Just as with hearing, for example, the sense of smell and taste can go downhill as people get older. But individual differences are large. ‘One older person might not taste anything anymore, while another one can taste better than the average young person', says Kremer.
Old recipes
Kremer received her PhD in 2006 for research on seniors and taste. Her findings were that strengthening tastes did not help, but making food more recognisable did. ‘When people who don't taste much see a green apple, they remember the fresh, sour taste. The memory and the other senses compensate for the loss of taste', explains Kremer. Using old recipes which older people still remember from their youth could help too.
The researcher would also like to know to what extent the death of a partner affects the weight and eating behaviour of the surviving partner. Older couples appear to enjoy their food more than those who live alone. Kremer: ‘For governments, a strong relation could be a reason to promote communal meals for single old people in neighbourhoods.'
Thanks to the size of the panel, the research can be done among subgroups, studying for example the use of sport drinks by physically active older people, or of protein-rich products for slightly undernourished participants. The first studies to be done together with partners from the food industry are in the pipeline and will take place over the coming months.

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