Here’s a brief list of foods and drinks you’ve probably learned to like over time: Brussel sprouts; blue cheese; grapefruit; asparagus; coffee; dark chocolate; fish that isn’t in the form of sticks; olives; and every form of booze (except the one you ruined for yourself in college).
Point is, your sense of taste changes pretty radically over time.
Sadly, though, it’s not because your tastebuds are evolving with age — it’s because your taste buds are slowly going extinct.
Let’s analyze the young tongue to better understand what’s going on here. Most people are born with roughly 10,000 taste buds, which vary in their sensitivity to different kinds of tastes. These taste buds blanket the tongue and send taste signals to the brain through nerves. Generally speaking, taste buds are good at regenerating — their cells replace themselves every one or two weeks, which explains why your sense of taste recovers just a few days after you burn your tongue on a slice of pizza.
But this all changes as we age: A 2012 study found that aging “profoundly” delays taste buds’ ability to regenerate after injury, and that some taste buds stop growing back altogether around age 40. Adults also tend to engage in taste-bud-annihilating activities — smoking and drinking — which lead to a duller sense of taste over time.
This numbing explains why we grow to like more strong-tasting or bitter foods as we grow older: It’s not that our palate has become more refined; it’s that we can better tolerate these powerful flavors because our sense of taste has diminished.
Evolution is also at play: Up until recently in human history, kids required every scrap of energy they could find, meaning their palates were largely fixated on energy-efficient foods that are often the sweetest-tasting. Some researchers also argue the reason we’re particularly sensitive to bitterness when we’re young is because it would’ve helped our early ancestors avoid eating poisonous foods while growing up.
Additionally, there’s the simple fact that we’re more open to trying new things as we age. Taste usually becomes a mind-over-matter situation — learning to eat salads, say — and as we force ourselves to gain exposure to new foods, we’re more likely to enjoy them as time goes on.
As for our dear, departed taste buds, we hate to see you go, but then again, now we can drink black coffee and eat dark chocolate. So there!