Ever wondered how the child who only eats 10 total foods grows up to be a connoisseur of oysters and calamari? Or why the friendly neighbor can suddenly tolerate nine servings of veggies per day after trying Whole 30?
In other words, do your taste buds change? They absolutely can.
Responsible for the sense of taste, the taste buds on your tongue can shift and may even help you reach your health goals. Discover how to initiate the transition from yuck to yum!
What Is Taste?
Taste is one of the five unique, main senses that humans possess. Taste is derived from the tongue when tens of thousands of taste buds are activated.
Taste buds are sensory receptors located on the bumps or papillae of the tongue. They are also located on the roof of the mouth, the epiglottis, and the throat. Working together, these tissues communicate with the digestive system to effectively absorb nutrients.
The five recognized tastes include:
- Umami (meat)
Often confused with taste, flavor actually results from stimulation of the olfactory system otherwise known as the sense of smell. The union of breathing and chewing produces the flavors of foods and is much more specific than the groupings that describe taste.
For example, cookies taste sweet, but can be further described as chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, sugar or ginger. Not to mention the additional flavors that additions like nuts or raisins offer.
Loss of Taste Causes
Taste cells synergistically work with chemical and physical senses to produce flavor. Thus, changes in taste buds can highly affect how someone perceives flavor. This mechanism is hindered due to various factors such as:
Typically, upper respiratory infections like the common cold or the coronavirus impair nasal pathways. This condition generally known as congestion can reduce the sense of smell and therefore, impact the perception of taste since they are inextricably related.
It seems like taste buds simply stop working when sick, making food taste bland and boring. But the truth is that taste is simply less potent without the sense of smell.
Vitamin, mineral and other nutrient deficiencies can result in suboptimal taste buds. Generally, these nutrients are required for taste bud tissue to perform optimally, so a lack of them can lead to a lack of taste.
The most common nutrient deficiencies that lead to this are vitamin A, B6 and B12, zinc, and copper.
As humans change, taste buds diminish in number and function. Aging taste buds endure a decrease in size and sensitivity, impacting the ability to taste flavor as potent as once before. Similar to the illness and infection cause, the natural reduction of sense of smell also contributes to the decrease in taste.
Additionally, many aging people take one or more medications, which can also alter the perception of taste. The most common class of meds that cause this are angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors used for high blood pressure.
However, others that can have an impact include:
- CNS meds
- Muscle relaxants
- Thyroid medications
Consult with a doctor or pharmacist regarding additional questions on certain medication side effects.
Nerves located along the mouth to the brain are responsible for taste bud function and perception of flavor. Thus, nerve damage related to injury or illness along this pathway can disrupt taste buds.
Potential causes of nerve damage include ear infections and surgeries, dental procedures, facial nerve dysfunction, or brain trauma. In addition, nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and some non-nervous system conditions like cancer can alter taste buds.
In reality, any disease or condition that affects the mouth, nose, or brain has the potential to change those buds.
Certain hormonal changes and/or imbalances can influence taste. One of the most obvious examples of this occurs during pregnancy. Pregnant women often exhibit newly acquired cravings for foods they never enjoyed in the past and may show a preferred desire for salty foods.
On a different note, hormonal shifts related to stress or sleep deprivation can increase cravings for foods high in refined sugar, salt, and fat.
The harmful, often toxic chemicals such as carcinogens and alkaloids contained in cigarettes can disrupt taste buds.
In some research studies, high nicotine dependence was associated with a lower taste sensitivity. Perhaps this is part of the reason why some say smoking reduces overall appetite.
Nonetheless, when smokers quit smoking, they reported improvements in taste perception within two weeks. This suggests taste buds do have the ability to regenerate and renew!
How Often Do Your Taste Buds Change?
Most of the above causes only alter taste buds acutely. The exceptions are aging and medical conditions, especially those that alter nerves within the mouth.
However, taste buds are constantly regenerating on a cellular and functional level. They are able to regenerate by dying, getting sloughed away, and then reproducing.
A normal taste bud cycle is 10 to 14 days. Yet, some research shows that at least 10% of the cells within taste buds turn over each day. This is exciting because it provides ample opportunity to try and potentially enjoy new foods!
How to Retrain Your Taste Pallet
While adults are more likely to try more foods, retraining a taste pallet takes practice. It’s one thing to first try a bite of Brussel sprouts and another to add a cup serving to dinner twice a week.
Use the following tactics to create a taste pallet that will set the foundation for achieving health goals.
Identify and Break Habits
Oftentimes, people eat the same thing over and over because it is familiar. Even when someone knows they could benefit from a more nutrient-dense lunch or dinner, it is all too easy to whip up a grilled cheese or frozen pizza.
However, identifying these habits and what triggers them is the first step to ultimately breaking the poor ones. It’s wise to replace a poor habit with a healthy one to expedite this retraining.
Reduce Processed and Packaged Foods
The brain is very receptive to highly palatable foods like cakes, cookies, juicy burgers, and salty pretzels. In fact, sugar affects the brain similarly to cocaine, highlighting its addictive tendencies.
Over time, this can heighten the desire for sweet, overly salty, or very high-fat foods. While all foods can fit into a balanced diet, such desire can displace more nutrient-dense options like fruits and veggies.
However, just like tastebuds can be conditioned to crave highly palatable foods, they can also be retrained. In fact, they can be trained to appreciate and eventually crave the flavors of real, wholesome foods.
Overall, reducing the initial trigger is the first step in this reconditioning.
Try Alternative Preparations
Sometimes learning to like a new food simply requires a different preparation method. Yes, steamed broccoli might seem unappealing. But roast it with some olive oil and Himalayan sea salt and it transforms into smoky, mouth-watering deliciousness!
Just because food is not liked when cooked a certain way, does not mean it cannot be enjoyed prepared differently. Try roasting, grilling, or sauteing veggies or test raw versus cooked versions. Also, season protein differently, use a different oil, or try new spices.
Prepping and cooking options are endless!
Combine New and Old Foods
Combining familiar flavors with new foods can lead the process of acquiring a taste or flavor, or even dismissing some.
For example, a little sugar or cream can subtly introduce coffee. Natural fruits and herbs, on the other hand, can naturally sweeten water to lessen the cravings for soda.
Whether it takes seven or 20 times of trying a new food to finally determine if it meets taste bud criteria is trivial for the bigger picture. The more important thing is that repeated exposure to a food increases the likelihood of accepting and enjoying it regularly.
Since taste buds renew every two weeks, though, it is plausible to continue trying a food this often.
The Bottom Line
Sensory receptors known as taste buds work conjunctively with the brain and olfactory system to produce the flavor of foods. While taste may seem static, the thousands of taste buds each human harbors regenerate every 10-14 days. This provides ample opportunity to try and enjoy new foods.
Bonus tips if the new foods also contribute to health goals!
Nonetheless, certain factors like age and illness can inadvertently cause acute or chronic taste changes. Most importantly, know that taste buds can absolutely be trained to eventually enjoy certain foods.
Lockett E. Why Taste Buds Change: 7 Causes and Treatments. Healthline. Written June 22, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/dental-and-oral-health/taste-buds-change#change-frequency.