Taste changes

Taste problemsExperiencing a change in taste is common in cancer. This can be due to the disease itself or treatments/medications.

Many people on chemotherapy can experience a metallic taste or be unable to taste anything. Radiotherapy to the mouth and throat area can also cause taste changes. In many cases, this can take a while to return but in some cases this can be permanent.

Smell and taste go together. If your sense of smell is reduced, your taste will be weakened too. Your sense of smell may also have changed, and you may smell things differently. This can lead to a dislike of certain foods such as tea and coffee, which can be very frustrating.

During cancer treatment, you may find that you suddenly like certain flavours that you didn’t like before. You might also find out that you don’t like foods that you did enjoy eating before. Your taste preferences can change quickly, a food you don’t like one day might taste better another day. It’s good to keep trying different dishes and to find what your preferences are.

What can I do?

If you are getting an unpleasant taste or have lost most of your taste, you might not enjoy eating some foods or meals. However, it’s very important to keep eating enough so that your body has the energy and nutrients it needs to support you through your treatment and minimise weight loss.

– If you eat meat, try adding something which is fresh and sweet, such as cranberry sauce or apple sauce, or try marinating meat with juice, sweet wine, or plums. If don’t eat red meat (or are cutting down), you can use meat substitutes such as Quorn. You can also replace red meat with foods such as fish, chicken, turkey, cheese, eggs, and plant-based protein sources such as pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), soy-based products, nuts and seeds.

A dry mouth can affect your taste. You may find that not drinking enough can cause a bad taste. To help combat this:

  • Try to drink enough fluids each day
  • Good oral care can help to reduce a bad taste
  • Chewing well can help improve taste
  • The temperature of your food and drink influences the taste: hot dishes have a stronger taste than cold dishes. Try out at which temperature dishes taste best, for example directly from the refrigerator, at room temperature, hot or slightly cooled
  • Try not to have too high expectations about the taste of your food – and remember that your appetite can also change

When food tastes metallic

Chemotherapy can make food taste metallic. This is usually worst in the first few days after receiving chemotherapy. You can try:

  • Adding grated carrot, cinnamon, or honey.
  • Avoiding iron-rich foods such as spinach and red meat (if you eat) for a short period of time and then carefully try again.
  • Experimenting with different flavours – ready-made sauces, pickles, chutneys, apple or mint sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, or salad cream.

If you have lost most of your sense of taste, use foods with strong flavours, such as herbs and spices, sweet and sour sauce, pickles, ginger, sambal paste, wasabi, mustard, vinegar, ketchup, marinades, pesto, piccalilli, soy sauce and lemon juice. Add lemon, lime, and vinegar to foods to enhance the flavour.

Tips to improve the taste of your food:

  • Grill meat seasoned with fresh herbs with a strong flavour such as rosemary, thyme, and mint
  • Prepare meat with garlic, ginger or cinnamon and nutmeg
  • For chicken or turkey, add garlic, tarragon, basil, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, curry, or chilli powder
  • Prepare fish with fennel, dill, pepper, lime, parsley, or coriander
  • Add vegetables with a strong flavour, such as celery, celeriac, parsnips, onions, spring onions, peppers, and tomatoes to your meals
  • Add cinnamon, cardamom, gingerbread spices or nutmeg to cereal and porridge or desserts

If strong flavours do not appeal to you, then it’s better to choose products with less flavour, such as bread, crackers, porridge, cereals, and mild cheese. With a hot meal, you can have rice, pasta or potatoes, egg, chicken, and vegetables with a mild taste, such as peas and carrots.

Change the texture

Experiment with texture to see if it improves your taste. Toasted bread or crackers can taste better than soft bread. To make your food crispy, you can sprinkle pine nuts, sunflower seeds, or dried onions over your food, or chopped nuts over your dessert. Do not do this if you have a very dry or sore mouth as these foods are hard and can cause pain.

Tip: provide distractions while eating, such as reading and watching television. This can make you pay less attention to the taste of your food.

Also try:

  • Adding lemon or lime to water or try drinks like bitter lemon. This stimulates the production of saliva and can help to get rid of an unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • Sometimes the bad taste disappears by eating something that dominates the bad taste, such as peppermint, chewing gum, or something tart like an orange
  • Foods such as fruit, yoghurt, cucumber, or salad can add a fresh flavour

Problems with smell

Cold food tends to have less of a smell than warm food. When you are bothered by the smell of dishes, it can help to eat them chilled or at room temperature. You can replace a hot meal with cold foods like chilled quiche, vegetable tart, tinned fish, or cold chicken or turkey with bread and a side salad. Sorbet, panna cotta, fruit, and frozen yoghurt can be refreshing and palatable.

You may also dislike the smell of hot drinks. Instead, try iced tea, iced coffee, water, squash, or juice. Use cups with a lid and drink cold drinks through a straw so that the smell can spread less.

Reduce odours

Let others prepare your meals and stay out of the kitchen when cooking. Take a walk when food is being prepared.

After cooking, ventilate the kitchen well to let the odours disappear. Sometimes you might find that smells other than from food can also be unpleasant. The following tips can help:

  • Ventilate rooms well, for example after cleaning with strongly scented cleaning products, or after visitors with strong-smelling perfume
  • Do not put fragrant flowers in the room where you are resting

We have cookbooks of nutritious and flavoursome recipes that are all designed for people who are experiencing taste changes.

Taking care of your mouth

Having a dry mouth can affect your sense of taste so try to drink plenty of fluids and keep your mouth and tongue clean by brushing regularly – using a soft-bristled toothbrush may be more comfortable. You may also want to see your dentist or oral hygienist to make sure that there aren’t any problems with your teeth or gums.

Choosing your food

It might help to eat what you enjoy and ignore what you don’t fancy for the time being. If a food you normally like tastes unpleasant, you could always try it again another time as your taste may change. Some people find that cold food tastes more pleasant than hot food.

> Order a free copy of our Flavour and Nutrition guide

> How long will it take for my taste to return to normal after cancer treatment?

> How can I deal with a change or loss of taste as a result of cancer treatment?