Thesis defence Heleen Hoogeveen

14 December 2016

On 30 November 2016 Heleen Hoogeveen defended her thesis Pleasure from Food: Different perspectives on aging in front of a committee of established researchers and was awarded with the doctor’s title.

Young and older adults experience similar taste sensations, but like tastes differently. This is one of the most evident outcomes from the research by Heleen Hoogeveen. She successfully defended her thesis on November 30th 2016, at the University of Groningen. Her work was part of a Top Institute Food & Nutrition project (TiFN), called Sensory & Liking, of which the outcomes provide new leads for product development targeted at the elderly. 

Grandmother likes an extra tablespoon of sugar in her tea, and grandfather wants his potatoes with a heavy sprinkling of salt. In fact, elderly compared to young adults often prefer foods with intense taste. Researchers tend to think that in the elderly decreased taste sensation is related to changes in taste liking. However, we observed that healthy older adults sense tastes similar to young adults, but show higher liking for sweet and salty tastes. This is probably because taste liking is dependent on more factors than taste sensation alone.

Neuronal processes

Searching for a better understanding of taste liking, I investigated the neuronal processes taking place from the moment food touches the tongue and stimulates the taste buds to the moment people give their opinion on how they like the taste. My colleagues and I were the first to measure (via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)) brain activity, in 39 healthy young adults (18-30 years of age) and 35 healthy elderly people (60 to 72 years of age), when tasting sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, at different concentrations.

In contrast to earlier findings, we found no activity differences in brain areas involved in taste sensations between the young adults and the elderly. This indicates that aging per se is not necessarily related to changes in taste sensation. However, brain areas involved in memory and emotions did show differences between the two age groups. With elderly participants, these areas showed higher activity, which might explain the differences in product appreciation between them and younger participants.

Optimizing products

Much food product development currently focuses on how foods can retard the aging process. In addition to this focus on the nutritional value of food products, there should be just as much attention on optimizing the appreciation of products for the elderly. Our work indicates the need for such research.

This experience at TiFN was very inspiring. It is challenging to translate fundamental outcomes towards practical applications. In this project industry partners and scientists communicated concisely and effectively to bridge this gap, providing valuable outcomes for us all. My aim is to continue in a research position bridging science and the food industry.

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