Ever wonder why you hated broccoli as a kid but now eat every spear on your plate? The answer: the evolving palate.
We are born with more than 10,000 taste buds in our mouths, with most of them on the surface of our tongue. Those taste buds are housed inside papillae -- those bumps you see when you stick out your tongue in the mirror. Within those taste buds are 50 to 100 taste cells with receptors that detect whether you're eating and send that information to your brain.
As we age, we have fewer and fewer taste buds, and those we have become less sensitive as the nerves that send taste signals to our brain wear out over time. So, the bitterness in broccoli that may have made us push our plates away as kids doesn't send as many strong signals to our brains in adulthood. Plus, scientists have found some children have a genetic predisposition to being more sensitive to bitterness in certain foods, including vegetables.
But that doesn't mean these so-called "sensitive tasters" will never eat broccoli again. Taste is comprised not only of those little buds on your tongue, but also smell, texture, temperature and even psychology -- memories you associate with certain foods. Read on for tips on how to boost your ability to enjoy not just broccoli, but every bite you eat.
Admit it. You eat in front of the TV, in the car, at your desk, during meetings and on the run. Of course you do, you're only human. And these days, in the millennium of multitasking, being human means doing 1,000 things at once. The trouble is that you're not paying attention. You're ignoring the yummy flavors in your mouth. No matter how many sugar molecules in that cinnamon roll are screaming your name, you've gone and checked out.
When our minds are tuned out at mealtime, our digestive processes can become 30 to 40 percent less effective at breaking down our food. Practicing mindful eating can help -- not only will it teach you to savor the distinct textures and flavors in your food but the practice can also help you reduce bloating, gas and constipation.
When you eat slowly, you inhale more deeply, drawing more aromatic molecules into the olfactory receptors in the upper portion of your nose. They in turn send more stimulation to pleasure centers in your brain. You're also more likely to stop when you're full, lose weight and avoid becoming part of one of America's leading epidemics: obesity.
To help you learn to eat at a more leisurely pace, health experts recommend:
- eating with chopsticks
- eating with your non-dominant hand
- chewing 30 to 50 times per bite
- turning off the TV or computer at mealtime
- making the meal last 20 minutes
- sitting down while you eat (Really? You stand up while you eat?)
You can start with something as simple as eating a slice of apple. As you put the slice in your mouth, close your eyes and focus on its texture, tanginess and temperature. If your mind wanders (as it will) bring your concentration back to your mouth and what you sense as you chew. Move the apple back and forth over your tongue before moving it to the back of your throat. As you swallow, notice any sensations or lingering flavor.
For extra credit, invite a friend over and do it together, chewing in silence and then discussing your experience when you're done.
Check Your Medicine Cabinet
You've started a new medication and now, it seems, you can't taste your food. It's a more common side effect than you think. Clinical studies have identified more than 250 prescription drugs that alter taste sensation, as well as cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation that kill off receptor cells that help you taste and smell.
It's still unclear how most of these medications lead to diminished taste, but some have been proven to reduce the regeneration of taste cells and the secretion of saliva that's essential to breaking down food into molecules that interact with the receptors that send taste signals to the brain.
Since many people, particularly the elderly, take at least half a dozen pills, it can be difficult to isolate the drug causing a decrease in taste, and therefore in appetite. However, researchers have uncovered some drugs that can have that effect including antidepressants, anticonvulsants, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, asthma medications, muscle relaxants and high cholesterol drugs.
The first thing to do is talk to your doctor about possible alternatives or taking a lower dose. If that fails, try adding spices and stronger ingredients to your diet to enhance the flavor of your food, things like sun-dried tomatoes, flavored vinegars, concentrated fruit sauces, vanilla extract and citrus juice.
Spice Things Up
If you think a spicy meal means adding a little powdered garlic to your hamburger patties, you can introduce your mouth to a whole new world of flavor by rounding out your spice drawer. Sure, that Cajun salt may smell strange today, but after experimenting with paprika, cayenne and onion powder, you'll have a new respect for jambalaya and gumbo -- we guarantee it. Start small by adding or changing one ingredient at a time in your recipes. A simple marinara sauce is a good place to start. Add a little oregano this this week, and include some thyme or basil next time you're preparing pasta with red sauce. Think of it as a culinary adventure designed to reeducate your tongue and expand your gastronomic horizons.
Don't Stay in a Dietary Rut
It's OK, we all fall into ruts. But if you want to improve your palate, you need to increase the diversity in color, texture and flavor of the foods on your plate. Like anything you do with regularity -- drive to work, brush your teeth, run to the park and back -- eating the same foods over and over puts your mind on autopilot and dulls your ability to distinguish taste.
Trying different foods introduces new flavors and smells, which makes us pay attention, similar to taking a new route during your morning jog or on your way to work. Suddenly, you notice the scenery and the new Thai restaurant that opened up down the street.
We also learn to distinguish flavors in contrast to each other. It's often hard to tell which glass of wine has a fruitier or tangier taste without comparing it to another. You drink one, then the other, back and forth until your brain registers that one has more blueberry flavor, the other a little more citrus. It's the same thing with the food on your plate. When you take a bite of bitter Brussels sprouts, then a scoopful of sweet potato and a chunk of savory meat, your brain works harder to distinguish the differences and keep the information straight.
Give lamb a try, or contemplate that rutabaga casserole with the intrepid spirit of a dietary buccaneer. What have you got to lose?
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Sure, you enjoy the occasional visit to an Asian restaurant and even like fusion cuisine when the restaurant menu has good descriptions of what you'll be eating. When it comes to the big unknowns, though, that's another story. Pickled eggs, fermented cabbage, rattlesnake, escargot, smelly cheeses and French dishes made from animal parts you don't even want to contemplate probably leave you cold.
There are lots of ingredients with enormous regional significance that seem odd if not odious to outsiders: grits, kimchi and blood sausage come to mind. Actually, in some areas of the world a breakfast of bacon and eggs sounds downright barbaric.
Harboring too many food prejudices is limiting and may be keeping you from discovering a truly scrumptious ingredient, dish or entire regional cuisine. Remember what you told your kids when they were small: How do you know you don't like it until you try it? When you step out of your comfort zone, you discover new things about food and about yourself, too.
Cleanse Your Palate
When you try new foods, or even indulge in old favorites, it's a good idea to cleanse your palate between courses. Think of your taste buds as delicate sensors that need to be recalibrated periodically. That rumaki appetizer (broiled, bacon wrapped chicken liver) tasted wonderful, but the lingering aftertaste could spoil the next course if you're not careful. Neutralize your palate for the delights to come by sucking on a lemon wedge or orange segment. Another option is to snack on a soda cracker or nibble a breadstick. If none of these palate cleansers are available, try sipping tepid water instead.
Throw Out Your Salt Shaker
Here's an exercise for you: For one week, cut as much salt as you can from your diet. Then, eat a few potato chips and prepare for a massive head rush. Sound dramatic? Maybe. But most Americans eat more than twice the amount of salt they should in a day, leading to health problems like high blood pressure that can cause heart attack and stroke. The average person needs no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. But with processed foods, Americans are eating between 2,000 to 8,000 milligrams a day. Wow!
When you consume too much salt, you over-stimulate your taste buds and lessen your ability to discern the subtle flavors in food. To compensate, you increase the salt and other seasonings you pour onto your plate, training your taste buds to need more and more and more. And the vicious cycle continues. The more you use, the less you can taste.
Reduce Your Sugar Intake
With sugar, the statistics aren't much better. The average American eats 2 to 3 pounds of sugar a week, not just in desserts, but in processed foods like bread, cereal, mayonnaise, peanut butter and ketchup that use high-fructose corn syrup.
Too much sugar affects not only your health, but your sense of taste -- also as a result of overstimulation. Restrict your intake for a while and you'll be surprised at how sweet foods taste naturally. For the first month or so, your meals are likely to seem bland. But over time, other tastes will start to get stronger. You'll also begin to detect a hint of sweetness in unexpected ingredients like vegetables, nuts and cheese. It's all about retraining your brain. Once you're no longer overloading your taste buds and olfactory cells with sugary foods, you'll start to notice the subtle tastes that give ingredients their rich, complex essences.
When you smoke, nicotine suppresses the nerve activity in the areas of the brain associated with taste. The chemical compounds in cigarettes interfere with both your sense of taste and smell by dulling the ability of your taste buds and olfactory cells to send the sensory messages to your brain. The bitter taste of the nicotine can also overwhelm your senses to the detriment of tasting other flavors.
The bad news is that this can create health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure beyond the obvious side effects of smoking, as smokers pour more and more sugar and salt on their foods in order to taste it. The good news is the process is reversible because taste buds and olfactory cells regenerate about every 10 days. If you stop smoking, you may notice a heightened sense of smell and taste within just a few days. Maybe it's time to wake up and smell -- and taste -- the coffee.
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