Food is one of life’s great pleasures. For millennia, young and old, families and friends, have gathered around communal tables spread with delicacies to celebrate significant events and holidays. Food that delights our senses can pick us up when we’re feeling sad, while a disappointing meal can leave us downright depressed. Eating well is synonymous with living well.
Unfortunately, as we grow older our enjoyment of food diminishes. Our taste buds become less sensitive. Our mouths produce less saliva and our jaw and tongue muscles become weaker, further reducing our ability to chew, swallow, and digest food. For some seniors, the metal in dentures and implants even changes the way food tastes. Those special feasts we used to look forward to when we were younger no longer seem so appealing.
But the problem goes deeper. Older people enjoy food less, so they tend to eat less and get less-than-adequate nutrition. One way to stop this downward slide is with umami. This fifth taste, derived from glutamate, is found in a wide range of foods, from cheeses and meats to mushrooms and tomatoes. Umami is enjoyed by people of all ages but appears to have special benefits for seniors.
The Ajinomoto Group is exploring ways to further enhance seniors’ lives with umami. One focus is salivation. Foods rich in umami increase the mouth’s ability to produce saliva more than sweet, sour, bitter, or salty foods. Elderly subjects given an umami-rich broth regained normal salivation levels over a period of ten months, resulting in increased appetite and weight gain. There’s a good reason why we describe savory, umami-rich foods as “mouth-watering.”
Life expectancy is increasing in Japan and many other countries. Meals that feature umami-rich foods help older people get adequate nutrition easily and live fuller, happier and healthier lives long into old age. That’s something to consider the next time you invite grandma and grandpa over for that big holiday feast.