Guest Blogger, Bret Rust, Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Group in Nutritional Biology, UC Davis
As we age the number of our taste and olfactory receptors declines creating a flavorless inadequacy to meals while our needs remain high for micronutrients, vitamins, minerals and flavonoids abundant in whole foods. When high micronutrient needs are compounded by declining energy requirements, the consumption of micronutrient-rich whole foods becomes a vital component to the diet of the aging population. Thus the challenge for elders and their caregivers is to create appetizing whole food dishes that deliver sufficient micronutrients when dietary intake is limited.
Typically standard flavor enhancers, like salt, are used to achieve more appealing dishes for those whose taste sensation may be diminished; however cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death worldwide and the proportion of deaths from cardiovascular disease increases as we age. Hypertension itself is a primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease and control of sodium intake is often used as medical nutrition therapy for controlling hypertension. Current sodium recommendations for elders is 1300 mg per day, or about half a teaspoon of salt—a huge restriction for those tasked with preparing palatable and flavorful foods for this population.
In cases where sodium restriction is necessary, cooking methodology can be an important tool in enhancing flavor without excessive use of salt. For instance, instead of boiling or steaming vegetables, stir-frying or sautéing in a heart-healthy olive or canola oils will bring out the natural flavor of foods and mitigate bitter compounds that may reduce the palatability of some vegetables. Layering seasoning, the process of seasoning dishes judiciously as ingredients are added, will maximize effectiveness of the salt used and bring out the flavors of each ingredient rather than adjusting flavor with excessive salt after the dish has been prepared.
Using garlic or other flavor-enhanced salt products during the layering process can further enhance flavor but beware of, and avoid monosodium glutamate which may cause allergic reactions in some patients. Be aware of the idiosyncrasies of herbs and spices and when their use is most effective. For instance basil is a delicate herb whose flavor degrades quickly in heat and should be used at the end or just after cooking. The flavors of peppers are locked in by the cell wall and can be released by toasting them in a skillet (without oil) before adding them to a dish.
Economical use of garlic can enhance a food without overpowering the dish with garlic flavor. Some elders may not care for the flavor of garlic but using small amounts during cooking enhances flavor without overpowering the dish. Do not fear using small amounts of oils and sugar. A little bit can markedly improve the palatability of foods—a few drops of sesame oil, honey or agave nectar in stir fry can go a long way towards improving flavor. Citrus can enliven food with a squirt before serving.
Salt substitutes are a common means of reducing sodium intake but they merely substitute potassium ion for the sodium ion in about half the volume. These products produce a bitter flavor and may reduce the palatability of foods rather than enhance their flavor. Sea salt and ancient Himalayan salt contain a broader mineral spectrum than iodized salt and can impart a stronger flavor so that less may be used to achieve the same effect. Soy sauce has often been used as a salt substitute, but when choosing a soy sauce, Wheat-free Tamari is the low sodium option. Wheat-free Tamari contains 1/8 of the sodium in 1 teaspoon of table salt. Because it is wheat-free, tamari contains a higher concentration of soybeans yielding a richer, more complex flavor.
These techniques are simply the approaches that good chefs might take to improve a meal but caregivers are confronted with a daunting and sometimes overwhelming task in providing sound overall care that can include transfers, transportation, medication management and administration, budgeting, bookkeeping and cleaning. Caregivers may not have time for or be acquainted with all the tools trained chefs bring to their profession, but by using a few of these techniques when time allows, caregivers can improve the quality and perhaps the length of our elders’ lives.