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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Increase Your Dining Pleasure with Essential Nutrients
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Forrest H. Nielsen

For many people, one of life’s pleasures is eating. The current concern about obesity attests to that fact. Eating is pleasurable because of our ability to detect the four types of taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The blends of these different tastes provide the distinctive flavors of various foods. Smell, called olfaction by scientists, contributes as much to the detection of food flavor as the taste buds on the tongue. As food is chewed, chemicals are released that stimulate the nasal passage to transmit a signal that requires some mineral nutrients to carry a message to the brain. Interference with the ability of smells to stimulate the nasal passage, such as having a cold with a stuffy nose, or lacking a nutrient important to the transmission of signals from cells of the taste buds or olfactory system, can make foods taste off-flavor or bad.

Zinc, copper and magnesium are established essential nutrients, and evidence exists that suggest nickel also is essential. These four minerals have been found to improve taste and smell for individuals having problems with these senses. This indicates that factors which cause a lack of one of these minerals could make eating some foods distasteful instead of pleasant.

Not getting enough of one or more of these four minerals could be one path to foods becoming less tasty. However, it is not the only way a mineral lack that affects taste can occur. Some drugs can bind minerals, such as copper, so that excretion in feces is increased. Some drugs can change kidney function to increase the urinary excretion of minerals such as magnesium. Illnesses such as the flu can affect the distribution of some minerals, such as zinc within the body, which can reduce the amount available for taste and smell functions. Physical or mental stress causing hormonal changes can decrease some minerals, especially magnesium, in cells that process smell and taste signals. Some diseases can prevent the proper absorption of minerals from the diet, or cause diarrhea, which decreases the ability of the body to retain essential minerals that are needed for detecting flavors and odors.

If difficulty in detecting flavors you once enjoyed, favorite foods do not provide an enjoyable taste experience, or many foods taste bad so that dining becomes a task, consider increasing your intake of zinc, copper, magnesium and nickel. It could be the way to make dining once again the pleasant experience it should be. Short term consumption of supplements providing no more than the upper tolerable intake levels of these minerals might be necessary to restore good taste and smell function. However, consuming good sources of zinc, copper, magnesium and nickel such as whole grains, nuts, legumes (soybeans and black-eyed peas are two examples) and chocolate is the way to maintain the ability to enjoy the flavors of foods.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006