Our palates are like seasoned travellers embarking on a lifelong culinary journey. They start as blank canvases, receptive to the simplest of flavours, and gradually develop into complex landscapes of taste and preference. However, as we age, our palates undergo a fascinating transformation, influenced by various factors such as biology, culture, and personal experiences.
As a wine professional who's often called upon to provide tasting notes or assess the soundness of a wine, I am mindful of taste perception and how it can change over time.
To stay current, I run my palate through calibration sessions, where I will taste fruits, spices, vegetables, and herbs on their own. In these sessions, I am assessing how my palate recognizes flavours. I want to be sure that what my palate perceived a nectarine to be previous is the same as today or, if it has changed, how so. This exercise allows me to be sure that my calls for blood orange over tangerine, for example, are as accurate as possible.
The evolution of our palate is an intriguing topic, so in this article, I explore the remarkable journey of our palates and how they change over time.
Taste Development in Childhood - That Sweet Adventure
The journey of our palates begins in infancy. Babies are born with 10,000 taste buds (some texts claim it to be 30,000). Talk about flavour perception on steroids! That number drops to only a little over 2,000 taste buds in adulthood. Given this, flavours and the experience tasting brings with it are incredibly intense and polar setting in forming preferences as an infant. But one thing is sure: our infant palate's preference for the sweet taste is certain.
It has long been professed that the liking for sweet taste is inborn.
Before birth, the ability to detect sweet tastes is functioning and interacting with systems controlling affect and suckling; thus, babies are born able to detect and prefer the predominant taste quality of the food they need to survive: mother’s milk.
The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences
Julie A. Mennella, PhD and Nuala K. Bobowski, PhD
We are born with a liking for sweet things and a disdain for anything bitter, extremely sour, or salty. The heightened flavour perception as an infant often makes the tastes above extremely intense and unpleasant.
Depending on the relationship with food at an early age, we may start to explore more and gain an appreciation for other flavours. Exploration is a significant action that shapes much of what is to come. In fact, it's during childhood that many lifelong food preferences are established. A testament to this is the popularity of vanilla ice cream, the top-selling ice cream flavour in the world. Its success is linked to our palate conditioning in the early days of a steady diet of breast milk.
Nonetheless, as children grow, they start to traverse different flavours, gradually acquiring a taste for a variety of foods. Moreover, exposure to diverse cuisines, family traditions, and positive food experiences also shape future preferences.
Rebellion and Exploration in Our Teens
Teenagers are notorious for their love of fast food, sugary snacks, and strong aversion to vegetables. This phase is marked by rebellion and a desire for independence, including culinary independence. This age also sees teenagers break their own personal boundaries to try things that are hip and make them seem more mature because that's just the cool thing to do. This 'look at me' stage leads teens to teeter with more bitter tastes, but let's not kid ourselves: sugary drinks are still where it is at for this group.
The teenage/young adult deep desire for intense sweet taste is also not lost on manufacturers. Ever wonder why they started making flavoured cigarettes? Well, now you know. Of course, most nations have banned flavoured cigarettes, with some going as far as to ban menthol cigarettes too.
Naturally, you cannot mention targeted flavouring without talking about sugary, ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages that are also targeted at the young. This form of targeted advertising just works. Data shows that 63% of young adults prefer sugary drinks versus 49% of adults, producing a viable market for those coming of age and trying alcohol for the first time.
All is not lost on the taste receptor front with the teen society. As teens mature and their palates continue to develop, they often become more receptive to a broader range of flavours and cuisines.
Adulthood Brings Maturing Palates and Refinement
As we transition into adulthood, our palates continue to evolve. Our ability to detect subtle flavours and textures improves, allowing us to appreciate the nuances of fine cuisine.
Many people develop a more sophisticated palate for wine, cheese, and other gourmet items during this phase, myself included. It is also true that from years of usage, our palates become duller and seek the more robust flavours of acidity and bitterness to peek the senses. This shift can lead to a reduced desire for sugary treats and a newfound appreciation for foods like dark chocolate and bitter greens. Hence, my new love for bitter melon.
Lastly, the influence of culture, travel, and exposure to different cuisines can significantly shape our taste preferences at this stage of life.
Aging and Changing Taste Buds
As we age, our taste buds may undergo changes that impact our preferences. One common change is diminished sensitivity to sweetness, salt, and bitter flavours. Many factors contribute to this, such as age, medication, and a limiting sense of smell. At this stage, our palates seek intensely sweet and salty foods. By seeking out intensely flavoured foods, our diminished palate perception will be able to pick up the nuances in flavours.
Our palates are not solely influenced by biological factors; they are also deeply connected to our memories and emotions. Positive and negative food-related experiences can leave lasting impressions. Comfort foods often hold a special place in our hearts, and certain dishes may evoke nostalgia for cherished moments in the past. Think about that childhood dish your family would serve on special occasions, for example. For me, that dish is pepperpot. I remember my mother asking me what my favourite food was at a very young age, and I boisterously shouted, "Pepperpot"! For those unfamiliar, pepperpot is a Guyanese one-pot stew that is served at Christmas, and is eaten with homemade bread and your fingers. The fact that I got to touch and taste my food without getting reprimanded may have played into my affinity for pepperpot. Or, perhaps it has to do with the cassareep sauce used to make pepperpot. Cassareep is sweet, spicy, and bitter all at once and, in my opinion, euphoric.
While our preferences may change as we age, the beauty of this journey lies in its diversity and the richness it brings to our lives. Embracing the evolving nature of our palates allows us to savour the wide range of flavours that the world has to offer, making every meal a delightful adventure.
So, whether you're a seasoned gourmet or just beginning your culinary journey, remember that your palate is a lifelong companion, ready to explore the world of flavours with you.