As I was making dinner last night (chicken curry), I thought to myself wow… my taste buds have really changed.
Growing up, there were 4 things I wouldn’t eat: mushrooms, onions, mustard and ANYTHING spicy. Now that I’m an adult, I enjoy mushrooms (cooked… I still don’t really enjoy them raw), onions (I can even eat those raw) and some spicy foods. I still don’t like mustard (unless it’s honey mustard) and there are still a lot of foods that are too spicy for me. However, I do enjoy the flavor of spicy foods, I just can’t handle the heat!
This was interesting to me so, I decided to do some research on taste buds. I had heard that your taste buds change as you get older, but that’s about all I knew.
I used to think those tiny little bumps on my tongue were the taste buds, but those are actually called fungiform papillae and EACH bump has an average of SIX taste buds buried within the tissue. And you don’t just have taste buds on your tongue—they’re everywhere, from the roof of your mouth to your throat and stomach!
The average adult has between 2,000 and 10,000 taste buds. People who have more than 10,000 are considered to be “supertasters”. “Research has shown that supertasters don’t like vegetables very much because they taste bitterness so intensely,” says Dr. Bartoshuk. “They also may find very sweet desserts, like crème brûlée, to be over-the-top sugary.”
To find out where you fall on the spectrum, try this fun test:
Apply a couple of drops of blue food coloring to your tongue and swallow a few times. Then examine your tongue’s surface; fungiform papillae won’t pick up the dye, so they’ll look like pink polka dots on a blue background. If your tongue appears to be almost solid pink, then you have tons of fungiform papillae and may be a supertaster!
Did you know your taste buds also help you to survive? “The purpose of our ability to distinguish tastes is survival,” says Trey Wilson, DDS, a New York City–based dentist. “Taste buds tell your brain whether or not to swallow what’s already in your mouth.” According to Dr. Bartoshuk, infants are born loving sweet and hating bitter, because natural sugar—not the sugar in, say, a processed candy bar, as we think of it today—is brain fuel, while bitter is the sensory cue for poison. “The taste system evolved to protect a baby who hasn’t learned anything about what is good and bad for himself yet,” she explains. Additionally, sodium is a mineral that’s essential for making our muscles and nerves work, therefore many people crave salty snacks.
Just like I had thought, your taste buds DO change, but what I didn’t know is that you can actually train them! So, when my parents said, “just keep trying it, you’ll like it eventually”, they were right! But there are certain ways to train them. “By our watching our parents and friends, our brain learns what foods are ‘good,’” says Dr. Bower. If you want to train your palate, according to Dr. Bartoshuk, bringing out the sweetness of something will make it more palatable, as will adding something fatty, since your stomach has fatty acid receptors (which send a pleasing signal to your brain). So pairing broccoli with cheese, or roasting it to pull out its natural sugars, will likely make it more enjoyable. “Or you could add social cues: Eat it with someone else who really enjoys it, or with someone whom you admire and like. All of these things can make the food seem more appealing.” Similarly, if you eat something you used to love right before getting hit with the stomach flu, chances are you’ll have an aversion to that food for quite some time.
I was also curious about how and why taste buds changed when I was pregnant. I remember only wanting sweets, or only fruits, or only vegetables, etc. at certain times of my pregnancies. The reason is because the taste buds may have been protecting against potential harm. “I suspect that because the taste of bitter is hardwired to be a cue for poison, early in pregnancy your brain becomes sensitized to avoid it in order to guard your baby,” says Dr. Bartoshuk. “Similarly, pregnant women crave foods that tend to be high energy sources—something women need more of during pregnancy––like sugars and carbohydrates in the form of bread, candy or other sweets.” So, eat those cookies, you’re just protecting your baby!! 😉
Last but not least, I learned that taste buds are like cool Marvel superheroes! They can REGENERATE!.. So, we have super powers, people!!! Taste buds are constantly regenerating. Taste buds go through a life cycle where they grow from basal cells into taste cells and then die. According to Dr. Bartoshuk, their normal life cycle is anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. However, “burning your tongue on hot foods can also kill taste buds,” she says. “But they grow right back, which is why the ability to taste doesn’t diminish with age.” Though Dr. Bartoshuk notes that taste remains robust as we get older, the ability to taste bitterness does decline in women with the onset of menopause. Since, on a primal level, the ability to taste bitter may protect a pregnant woman’s baby, those receptors may stop working after a woman’s childbearing years are over because it is no longer a reproductive necessity.