My mom is 89 years old, and she eats like the proverbial bird. I probably worry about that more than the average person given my day to day work in nutrition. Finding ways to get older individuals interested in eating can be a very frustrating challenge. While most of us worry about being TOO interested in food, under-nutrition is a chronic and health-threatening problem among many of our elderly. Often their senses of taste and smell are significantly compromised, and food is just plain unappealing.
Malnutrition Among the Elderly is a Major Health Concern
Aging, as well as a number of diseases and illnesses, decrease our ability to taste and smell. This decrease in our senses is a major contributor to poor nutritional status in populations like the elderly, making it increasingly difficult for doctors and nutritionists to ensure that their patients get much-needed nutrients. Studies have found that adding MSG to certain foods, such as soup and mashed potatoes, has been successful in increasing the food intake in institutionalized elderly populations.
MSG may also help to regulate appetite. Currently, there is significant interest in what makes us feel hungry or feel full, and how understanding satiety could help in understanding appetite. Studies show that we are programmed to find foods with umami taste appetizing when we are hungry but not nearly so pleasant when we are full. This may be important for deciding how much we eat at a meal.
I was interested when I read in a nutrition newsletter about a study (Dermiki et al, Appetite, 2015) that asked, among other questions, whether adding MSG to an unfamiliar-flavored soup influenced intake of that soup over time in older individuals. Well, unfortunately, the results were not very clear-cut from a practical sense, in part because the level of MSG in the “test” soups probably was well above that expected to add a nice umami flavor boost. (Too much of anything can be just that – too much.) So the results from this study are pretty difficult to extrapolate.
But others also have researched the effect of MSG and glutamate on appetite and satiety. One of the better studies was conducted in a nursing home in France (Bellisle et al, 1991). Here the authors found that adding a low level of MSG did improve the intake of some, but not all foods tested. And where it worked, intake of nutrients in those foods went up – which would be the overall goal in a setting like this. Their suggestion: Give it a try. Adding MSG in foods, especially adding MSG to nutritious foods, may help improve interest and satisfaction in eating, while giving a bump in intake of some essential nutrients.
Generally speaking, the view is that evolution is the driver behind our having receptors on our tongues for glutamate that send signals of “savory” and “pleasant” to our brains when it’s in our foods. We speculate that those receptors ultimately help ensure we meet our biological need for protein. But while researchers are still digging into the nuances, in the meantime, if it can help my mom smile when we’re around the dinner table, I am all in.
Read more about recent research which found that adding MSG in foods, and the umami taste it triggers, is important for health, especially among elderly people.