Battle of the Bland in Aged Care – Taste Changes in the Elderly and What You Can Do

There is some evidence to say that older people need 2 – 3 times more salt to even detect it in a tomato soup. Usually, the taste of saltiness and sweetness are first lost, followed by the taste of bitterness and sourness. Several other factors also lead to the decline in taste, such as smoking, poor oral hygiene, dentures and medications. In addition, the decline in saliva production and dehydration that causes dry mouth also affects the sense of taste.

Changes in the ability to taste and smell have important consequences for nutrition. When food no longer tastes and smells as good, people tend to lose interest in eating, which often leads to malnutrition and weight loss.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to reverse the changes the elderly experience in decreased taste and smell and relying on a salt shaker on the dining room tables may not be enough for our residents.  There are a few things we can do for our residents to improve their experience with food:

Liberalisation of Salt and Sugar

We often hear well meaning staff and family members raise concern about high blood pressure or diabetes and levels of salt and sugar in aged care food. You may be surprised to know that research supports the liberalisation of salt and sugar in food provided in residential aged care facilities. What the evidence shows is that a quality of life approach that supports enjoyment of food and allows residents to eat as much as they are able is the best way of preventing weight loss and malnutrition (two of the biggest issues facing residents in aged care, much higher risks that blood pressure and diabetes).

If needed residents with complex care needs may have individual recommendations in place but for the vast majority, liberalisation of salt and sugar in the diet makes food taste better, assisting them to enjoy their meals and eat more. So if the salt and sugar you have added to the meal seems to be adequate for your own tastes, it is very likely that you will need to add a lot more to meet the loss of taste sensations for the older person.

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Don’t Forget About Herbs and Spices

Certain seasonings can give the sensation that a food tastes sweeter or saltier. For example: Adding or increasing vanilla or cinnamon in a recipe makes foods taste sweeter than they really are. Nutmeg has a sweet, warm, and spicy flavour. Ginger gives a hot, spicy, sweet flavor and mint provides an aromatic sweet flavor with a cool aftertaste. Cooked items that may be bland can also have added spices or herbs. Cooked vegetables such as beets, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips, and winter squash can benefit from some thyme, rosemary, lemon or orange juice/peel or honey.

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Cold and Hot

In general, serving foods warm rather than cold enhances the aroma. Food that is supposed to be cold tastes better cold. Food that is supposed to be hot tastes better hot. This is another reason why we need to encourage eating meals in the dining room as meals can be served fresh and not left on a trolley for periods where the temperature can change.

What Can You Do?

It might be time for your aged care home to review your food tastes, particularly in relation to flavours. When was the last time you updated your recipes and tasted them? Make use of your staff, volunteers, visitors to gain more opinions and involvement to the taste profiles of your recipes.

Have you noticed certain meals with higher wastage amounts? Have you considered using more herbs, spices or seasoning? You might not have needed to take that menu item off the menu. We often hear residents saying “I used to like eating fish, but not how they do it here”. Maybe it’s not the fish that they dislike, but more so the cooking methods and the recipe.

We would be interested to hear about anything that has worked well in your homes.

 Leading Nutrition are leaders in aged care nutrition. Contact us on 1300 712 722 for more information on how we can assist your home.

Reference: Effects of ageing on smell and taste. 2006 Apr J M Boyce and G R Shone