Losing appetite as you age? Try adding umami flavour to restore the 'joy of taste'

Umami, which is sometimes referred to as the 'meaty' flavour of protein, was only recognised as a distinct taste within the past 20 years

An inability to enjoy the “brothy” flavour of umami – one of the five basic tastes – could be linked to an overall decline in the health of elderly individuals who go off their food as they get older, a study has suggested.

Japanese patients suffering from loss of appetite, weight loss and poor general health were found to have lost their taste for the flavour of umami – even though they could still detect the tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter food.

Treating patients with tea made from seaweed tasting of umami helped them to recover their lost taste and appetite, as well as improving their weight and overall health, the scientists said.

Umami, which is sometimes referred to as the “meaty” flavour of protein, was only recognised as a distinct taste within the past 20 years when nerve receptors were found in the taste buds of the tongue for glutamate – a substance found in proteins as well as being the main ingredient of the food enhancer monosodium glutamate.

“There is a close relationship between an individual’s perception of umami taste and that individual’s physical condition,” said Takashi Sasano, of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. “Our newly developed umami taste-sensitivity test revealed the loss of only the umami taste sensation with preservation of the other four basic taste sensations in some elderly patients.

“All such patients complained of appetite and weight loss, resulting in poor overall health. Maintenance of umami taste function contributes not only to preservation of good oral health but to general overall health in elderly people.”

Dr Sasano and his colleagues, whose study is published in the online journal Flavour, reported that loss of taste, particularly the umami flavour, could be one of the key reasons why elderly people lose interest in food later in life.

This appetite loss could be linked to the inability to produce saliva in the mouth, which lubricates food and stimulates the digestive juices of the gut, they suggested.

“Enjoyment of taste should be one of the greatest pleasures in life. However, ageing is sometimes associated with decreased taste sensitivity,” Dr Sasano added.

Umami means “pleasant savoury taste” in Japanese.  Foods rich in umami flavour include fish, cured meats, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, spinach, celery and green tea, as well as fermented foods such as cheese, shrimp pastes and soy sauce.

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