Pioneering research from the University of Reading is being used to enhance the taste of hospital food to help prevent or treat malnutrition in older people.
The project is supported by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and funded by Research into Ageing, the medical arm of Age UK.
The research is using a taste central to Japanese food to modify the sensory properties of food to increase its flavour. Deliciousness in foods, especially savoury food, is enhanced by umami -- which is known as the fifth taste and is the Japanese word for delicious and savoury.
Umami naturally occurs in shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and tuna to name a few, and is commonly found in Marmite and Worcestershire sauce for example.
Researchers at the Department of Food Biosciences at Reading and Clinical Health Sciences are working with The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust and Heston to modify foods so that older patients in particular will find them more flavoursome.
Dr Lisa Methven, lead researcher at the University, explained that the taste compounds are extracted from umami-rich ingredients and then a recipe developed with high levels of umami. Tasting panels help refine the recipe further.
Dr Methven said: "As people get older their taste and odour thresholds increase so they may need more flavour to taste sufficiently and enjoy food. Malnutrition is a particular problem for older adults in hospital and nursing home settings, and it can result in longer periods of illness, slower recovery from surgery and infection and increased mortality rates."
The research is concentrating initially on minced meat -- a staple for many dishes. Researchers have visited Heston's restaurant, the Fat Duck, to watch how the chef cooks and develops ideas and to see how these can be recreated in hospital kitchens.
Heston is delighted to be involved as consultant. "Mealtimes should be something to be celebrated in hospital. They should be something to look forward to. Umami is a great way to rejuvenate the dining environment in hospital and improve the flavour in the mouth."
Once the researchers have perfected their recipes, the meals will be trialled on elderly care wards at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust.
Margot Gosney is Professor of Elderly Care Medicine at the hospital and also director of the University's Clinical Health Sciences. She said: "Sixty per cent of elderly patients come into hospital malnourished and, unfortunately, the percentage is even worse when they leave. When someone comes into hospital they are particularly vulnerable because of infection, or trauma or surgery and we need to make sure they get the nourishment they need to recover. We want to improve the lot of older people."
Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK, the new force combining Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: "With people in later life accounting for two thirds of all acute hospital in-patients, it is essential that more is done to improve nutrition in hospitals. Malnutrition can have a huge impact on the health of people in later life, especially those who are hospitalised, where diet plays such an important role in recovery. We are therefore delighted to be funding this crucial research and look forward to some exciting results."
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