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What’s That I’m Tasting?

By September 19, 2013July 15th, 2023Featured, MSG
Taste and good-tasting food

…and Why Are Unusual Foods Always Said to “Taste Like Chicken?”

As a young child, I liked most vegetables with the exception of lima beans, peas, eggplant, cooked carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbage, mushrooms, beets….  Oops, guess that list is longer than I originally thought!  I did like – rather LOVED – white potatoes (mashed and fried!) and tomatoes.  The good news is that as I got older, my tastes changed and I grew to like all vegetables and still do (with one truthful exception – stewed okra).

In order to entice the kids in our family to try new foods, I recall agreeing with my parents I would try new tastes/foods by closing my eyes and having the food popped into my mouth.  Voila!  I learned through the “trick and sneak” method that vegetables were indeed good, if not delicious.  The one “taste test” that stands out in my mind was very simple: it was a small slice of luscious ripe red tomato that was sprinkled with a touch of sugar. It was yummy.  But I already liked tomatoes so this opened my eyes to viewing favorite foods in a whole new light.

Trial and error is not the only reason our preference for foods change as we go from childhood into adulthood.  Physiologically, all of our senses (e.g., taste, smell, touch, hearing) can and do change in a variety of ways as we age.  With a background in food and nutrition, the one sense of most interest to me is taste.  Although directly linked to our sense of smell, taste has identifiable characteristics of its own.  (Don’t you agree that foods are not as appealing when you have a stuffy nose and have no idea what that fresh baked chocolate chip cookie smells like?)

But let’s stick with taste per se for the purposes of this blog.

Experts state that as we age, our ability to experience taste sensations does decrease after age 60.  Most often, salty and sweet tastes are lost first.  Bitter and sour tastes last slightly longer.  Knowing this, it is even more important to keep foods highly flavorful, so that the overall nutritional quality of the diet is maintained, even into middle age and beyond.  At the same time, keeping one’s sodium and sugar intake at levels recommended by health professionals can be a challenge.

Keeping Foods Tasty: Some Tips

Flavor Enhancement Made Simple
Spices can boost the flavor of a food but many elderly people cannot tolerate them.  If spices don’t bother your gastrointestinal system, enjoy!  Try to avoid table salt, and minimize your consumption of salt (sodium) in general, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure.  Also, monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been found to improve appetite among the elderly, and has significantly less sodium than salt.  Simulated flavors, like bacon or cheese, can be added to soups and vegetables to make them more palatable.  Try acidic flavors like lemon to boost the flow of saliva.

Kick Up the Aroma
Low-sodium marinades can give meats and vegetable dishes enhanced aroma, which can up the flavor factor.

Variety Can Help
Sensory fatigue may be caused by sticking with the same old foods. Offer a variety of foods and textures within a given meal to keep taste buds “awake.”

Too Hot, Too Cold, Just Right?
Don’t bore taste buds with foods that are all the same temperature or have temperature extremes. 

How Taste Works: Some Tasty Facts


  • The average person has thousands of taste buds on his or her tongue. The taste buds respond to five basic taste stimuli: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the more recently recognized “umami,” the savory flavors of certain amino acids. More on umami and the evolution of taste:
  • Our ancestors had their taste receptors to thank for helping them avoid poisonous or decaying food, as these trigger bitter or other unpleasant tastes.
  • When you take a bite, your saliva helps dissolve the food, allowing tiny hairs or microvilli within the taste buds to capture the food molecules. These, in turn, trigger nerves to carry the sensation to the brain, where the flavor is perceived.
  • An altered sense of taste can make old favorites, like fruits and vegetables, less appealing. This has been shown to erode immunity to disease, even when the calories consumed remain the same.

To learn more about how a small amount of MSG can go a long way in improving taste while reducing the intake of sodium, read “8 Tips for Using MSG in Cooking and in Recipes.”

Oh, for our readers who wanted to know my thoughts on “why are unusual foods always said to “taste like chicken?” – that’s a good question.  I don’t know either, but it sure has irritated me over the years when I am told that I should try some mysterious reptile meat because it “tastes like chicken!”  

Kaye is an author and consulting nutritionist with more than 15 years’ experience representing clients in the food industry, providing strategic leadership and consulting on meal planning, recipe development, consumer-focused educational materials relating to food and nutrition, science-based communications, and media relations. Read more about her background on the About page.

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