Imagine biting into your favorite gooey treat or delicious savory dish. Does your mouth fill with flavor? You can thank your tastebuds. They’re the reason you drool over a sticky dessert or shun a strong-smelling cheese—and they can also change your food preferences over time.
While you may have never given these tiny buds much thought, the truth is you have more control over them than you realize. In fact, you can actually train your tastebuds to become more sensitive, changing the way you experience food for the better.
The Science of Taste
Your tongue is covered in small bumps called papillae, most of which contain tastebuds. Everyone starts with around 10,000 tastebuds, and they replenish every week or so. Over time, you lose some and thus become less sensitive to flavors as you get older. Couldn’t stomach sweet and sour sauce as a child but can’t get enough of it as an adult? Now you know why.
People who have more papillae are called supertasters, and they comprise around 25 percent of the population. Supertasters tend to be picky eaters because everything tastes a little more intense to them—they can pick up on the slightest hint of garlic or develop extreme aversions to certain flavors.
Many people don’t know you don’t actually taste with your mouth: you taste with your brain. Tastebuds detect whether your food is salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami (a savory, earthy, meaty taste—think broth, mushrooms, potatoes). Meanwhile, tiny molecules of food trigger your olfactory (smell) receptors. Together, the tastebuds and olfactory receptors send messages to your brain, which interprets these signals to determine flavor.
When Bad Things Happen to Good Tastebuds
Most of us have had a cold at some point. Did you find your food tasted different? Maybe you couldn’t taste it at all.
Many things can impair your sense of taste or cause you to lose it entirely. They include:
- Any illness that affects your nose, throat, sinuses, or the nerves related to smell will affect your ability to taste.
- Maintaining a healthy weight can prevent tastebud loss. If weight is an issue for you, consider kickstarting some new healthy habits with a weight management kit.
- Dental issues. Gum disease and dry mouth can change how you taste food. Other dental conditions, like a tooth abscess, can release unpleasant-tasting fluid.
- Smoking affects the blood supply reaching your tastebuds, making them less sensitive and dulling your sense of taste.
- Heavy drinking can affect the nerve receptors linked to taste and smell.
- Some medicines desensitize your tastebuds or dry out your mouth, preventing the sensation of flavors.
- As you age, you begin to lose tastebuds, and those remaining can become less sensitive.
The good news: with some simple lifestyle changes, it’s possible to optimize your tastebuds and hone your palette to continue enjoying the foods you love.
Retrain Your Sense of Taste
A delicious meal or snack is one of life’s greatest pleasures. So if you want to make the most of every mouthful, try some of these tried-and-true taste hacks.
Throughout a meal, you eat several different types of food, maybe over two or more courses. And while the combination of these foods may be delicious, eating this way can make it difficult to taste each ingredient. Water or bread acts as an excellent palette cleanser to reset your tastebuds, allowing you to fully enjoy each bite.
Reduce Sugar and Salt
Sugar and salt can significantly affect your sense of taste—and you may develop a tolerance to them and crave more when you eat food with low quantities of either. Processed foods are loaded with these ingredients, so take control of your flavors and cut these cunning culprits from your diet. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll taste the difference—and your waistline will thank you, too.
Embrace Your Kitchen
Making meals from scratch puts you in charge of the ingredients in your food and gives you an opportunity to expand your palette by trying new things. If you cave to the pressures of FOMO and play it safe when eating out, home cooking allows you to step out of your comfort zone with tiny tweaks to your favorite dishes—experiment with a different sauce or switch broccoli for asparagus. You’ll never know you like it until you try it.
Overhaul Bad Habits
Smoking, drinking alcohol and overusing prescription or over-the-counter drugs all negatively affect your sense of taste. It’s best to avoid them altogether, but if you’re not ready to go cold turkey, try cutting back on how much you consume each week.
Your food’s appearance can influence how you taste it. A vibrant salad full of brightly colored and sweet-smelling vegetables will taste as good as it looks—and certainly much better than the same vegetables presented as a flat, uninteresting dish.
Try, Try Again
Trying new foods isn’t a game you can complete. Try a new flavor and, even if you’re not too keen on it, try it again. Maybe preparing the food a different way or pairing it with other flavors will make a difference. Tweak your recipes and get creative—you may even discover your new favorite food.
Give these tips a go and begin your culinary adventure to expand your palette. You’ll never look at food in the same way again.