Do our taste buds change with age?

Now We Know: Children’s sense tends to be sharper as we lose buds as we get older

Children can be awful fussy eaters, can’t they? Whether it’s turning their noses up at mussels or refusing to eat their greens, the struggle to add a bit of variety to the supper table seems to affect a lot of parents. Of course, there are young diners who are as into kombucha and kimchi as their older dinner dates, and there’s a serious difference between an allergy and a dislike. Allergies aside, whether these eating preferences are down to nature or nurture sparks debate. But, speaking in very broad terms, it’s quite likely to be a bit of both.

You see, our taste buds change with age. Children may not be so much as fussy as discerning. We are born with a full set of functioning tastebuds, around 10,000 according to sources including kidshealth.org – though some sources claim the amount to be as high as 30,000 – which die off as we age.

The average adult may have between 2,000 and 8,000 functioning taste buds, according to britannica.com. "The number of taste buds varies widely," write Elizabeth Bernays and Reginald Chapman for Encyclopaedia Britannica. "For example, per square centimetre on the tip of the tongue, some people may have only a few individual taste buds, whereas others may have more than 1,000; this variability contributes to differences in the taste sensations experienced by different people."

In an article on npr.org called Why Taste Buds Dull As We Age, science writer Natalie Jacewicz addresses losing our sense of taste – and smell – as we age. "You lose all your senses as you get older, except hopefully not your sense of humour," Steven Parnes, an ear, nose and throat doctor based in New York, told Jacewicz.

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“A taste bud is good at regenerating; its cells replace themselves every one to two weeks,” writes Jacewicz. “Ageing may change that ability. Though taste buds generally seem to be good at regenerating even with age, older taste buds are less adept at regenerating after injury.”

Parnes explains that, based on his clinical observations, “the amount of loss varies from one individual to another, but women generally report losing taste in their 50s and men in their 60s.”

Could this explain why many adults begin to appreciate spicier, saltier, stronger flavoured foods as we age? Why a child balks at blue cheese, and stages protests at the appearance of anchovies on a pizza? Taste is a subjective thing but the biological facts of our taste buds might mean that children experience taste with greater intensity than adults.

The next time your youngster refuses to eat their greens, try not to be jealous of their youthful taste buds. You might even show them a bit of empathy – it appears that they can taste that broccoli way better than you can.