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Keeping in good taste.

The sense of taste is critical to our enjoyment of food--we know how tasteless food is when we have a cold or our sense of smell is otherwise impaired. Aging affects both taste and smell, as it does other bodily functions. Many compensate for such loss by increasing their use of salt and/or sugar.

The sense of taste is a delicate one and is very much linked to the sense of smell. Although impairment of either sense affects the sense of taste, external factors are far more likely to impair the sense of smell. The olfactory receptors in the nasal mucous membrane are probably 10,000 times more sensitive than the taste buds in the mouth. They can be quickly repaired after minor assaults, such as an infrequent common cold. However, recurrent or chronic infections of the nasal passages and sinuses can permanently damage these receptors.

Although there are only four basic tastes--sweet, sour, salt, and bitter--they can be combined in countless combinations to give the great variety of tastes we experience. Taste buds located on the tongue and adjacent areas of the oral mucous membrane are constantly replaced as they "wear out." Aging, certain medications, improper nutrition, and other factors can affect the rate of replacement, but impairment of taste is more likely to result from impairment of smell.

An understanding of how the senses of taste and smell work is necessary to avoid the undesirable, yet all-too-common practice of adding more salt and sugar to food. We all know, for example, how well our sense of smell quickly accommodates to a continuing odor. We might even smell a particular odor when we first enter a room, yet be oblivious to it a short time later, even though neither we nor the odor has left the room.

We can accomplish the same thing by taking successive bites of food from the different items on our plate. Or, we could switch from soup to salad to bread every time we take a bite before the main course is served.

We can also titillate our taste buds by sampling a small portion of sherbet before the main course. Its cold and sweetness wipes out the lingering taste of the soup or other first course and prepares the taste buds for the main event. Similarly, we can "flush" the tongue throughout the meal by taking sips of water.

We can also enhance flavor by using less water in soups and sauces that contain a variety of spices (thus lessening the need for salt). We can also choose a variety of textures in the food we eat. (Pity the elderly and others who are often forced to eat strained baby food because their dentures are defective!) Thorough chewing releases the food's maximum taste and smell.

One of the strangest and most inconsiderate practices is that of a smoker who lights up between courses in a restaurant. Besides dulling his or her own sense of taste and smell, the smoker succeeds in spoiling anyone else's senses within range as well.

Finally, if you have been misled into using zinc supplements as alleged taste enhancers--stop! Supplemental zinc will improve taste in those very rare persons with a zinc deficiency, but the megadoses used in these supplements can be downright dangerous for the rest of us.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society, Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:enjoying food through taste and smell
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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