Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Friday, 30 April 2010 00:01 UK

TV chef takes on hospital food

By Helen Briggs
Health reporter, BBC News

Heston Blumenthal
Heston Blumenthal takes a taste test

Hospital food designed to appeal to the taste buds of the elderly has been launched by TV chef Heston Blumenthal and a team of scientists.

The celebrity restaurateur is collaborating on a project to improve nutrition on elderly care wards.

As people age their taste buds decline, so food becomes less appealing.

The Reading University team has been experimenting with introducing strong flavours from Japanese food into British classics like shepherd's pie.

The long-term goal is to develop a series of recipes that rejuvenate the palate of older diners, and combat malnutrition.

If you're an older person who is suffering from a deterioration in taste you don't get an extra taste bud, whereas you can get a hearing aid or a pair of glasses
Dr Lisa Methven

Flavour in foods, especially savoury ones, is enhanced by umami - known as the fifth taste, and also the Japanese word for delicious and savoury.

The umami taste is due to the detection of an amino acid common in meat, cheese, broth, stock, and other protein-rich foods.

The scientists extracted compounds from umami-rich foods including mushrooms, seaweed and miso.

These were analysed in the lab for nutritional value, then added to a mince base which can be used in a variety of popular recipes.

Dr Lisa Methven, lead researcher, told the BBC: "If you're an older person who is suffering from a deterioration in taste you don't get an extra taste bud, whereas you can get a hearing aid or a pair of glasses.

"Our hope is that we can develop foods that older people can get more pleasure out of and enhance their nutritional status."

Malnutrition in the elderly
60% of elderly patients come into hospital malnourished
Malnutrition can result in longer periods of illness and slower recovery from surgery and infection
Diet plays an important role in recovery

The prototype menu has been tested by tasters including a special consumer panel of 65 to 85-year-olds.

Once the formulation has been tweaked by the Reading scientists and chefs at Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, in Bray, Berkshire, it will be trialled on an elderly care ward.

Heston Blumenthal said he was delighted to be involved as consultant.

He said: "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."

The Patients Association is campaigning to improve nutrition for the elderly in hospital through initiatives like protected mealtimes.

Spokesperson Katherine Murphy said they welcomed the research but health leaders also needed to look at issues like staffing.

She said: "I think we need to address the fundamental problems first.

"All too often we hear from relatives about food being left out of reach of elderly patients.

"Malnutrition is a very important problem in the elderly and it's very much forgotten."

The three-year project is being supported by the charity Research into Ageing.

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