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

Cancer, or cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiotherapy, can change your taste. Certain foods may no longer taste how you remember them, things you used to love might suddenly not taste so good anymore.

How you experience the taste of certain foods can differ from day to day. While these changes can affect the enjoyment of food, for many, taste changes are temporary, and for most people, they will eventually return to normal.

Most health care professionals recommend finding flavours you still enjoy and adjusting your food choices accordingly. You can avoid products that you don’t like anymore.

Scientific research on how cancer can affect your taste and how to cope with this is still very limited. However, there are some recommendations that may improve your perception of flavours when your taste has changed.

How does taste work?

There are taste buds on your tongue, on the inside of your mouth and in your throat. These buds allow us to taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (a savoury taste) flavours. Taste is partly determined by our sense of smell too.

The texture and temperature of food and drink can also play a role in how we taste and experience foods. For example, some foods can cause your mouth to feel dry while others might cause a greasy feeling. Crispy or spicy foods can stimulate the production of more saliva, which can stimulate taste. The way food is prepared also has an influence on how you perceive taste, as well as the environment where you eat your food.

Below you will find a short description of various taste changes that can be experienced and some tips on how to cope with them.

None or little taste or smell

After treatment you may not taste much for a while. There are ways to add more flavour to your food. For example, adding fresh and sour flavours, such as lemon, or adding fresh herbs, can make food taste better.

Food tastes different

If food tastes different, it is important to discover what your new taste preferences are. If you like sweet tastes, then you can add honey or syrup to a dish. If you like sour foods, you could try adding vinegar or lemon. Cinnamon and other spices can help when foods have a metallic taste.

Food feels different in your mouth

If food feels different in your mouth, adding something fatty such as butter may help. Trying different textures can also make food feel nicer to eat. For example, adding croutons to salad or soup can help to add new textures. Temperature also determines how something feels in your mouth. Eating your food lukewarm or cold can help improve its flavour.

Aversion to food and smells

Cold food such as a pasta salad will not smell as strong as a hot meal, try experimenting with the temperature of foods if you are experiencing aversions to smells. If you no longer like a certain food, there’s no need to force yourself to keep eating it. You can even try foods you didn’t like before, as your preferences may have changed.

By following the steps below, you can discover what taste, smells and textures of food you like.

I have little to no taste and/or smell littleTo add a strong or fresh taste
  • Vinegar, lemon, lime, yoghurt, fresh fruit
  • Spring onion, celery, celeriac, bell pepper, parsnip, tomato, onion, fennel
  • Chutney, candied ginger, mustard, piccalilli, wasabi
  • Spicy sauces, such as chilli sauce and hot sauce
  • Spicy seasoned foods, such as spicy seasoned nuts or seeds
  • Sweet and sour pickles and onions
  • Fruit compote
Add something crispyCroutons, (chopped) nuts, pieces of cucumber
Add fresh spices and herbs with a strong tasteBasil, cayenne pepper, chilli pepper, dill, tarragon, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, curry, garlic, coriander, cloves, bay leaves, mint, nutmeg, rosemary, celery, star anise, thyme, fresh pepper, white pepper
Try something new
  • Baking or grilling (instead of boiling) gives more flavour
  • Piccalilli or chutney with your meals
  • Desserts, cereals and porridge with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, or nutmeg
  • Cranberry sauce, apple sauce or fruit chutney with meals
  • Marinate meat or meat substitutes in, for example, fruit juice with vinegar or soy sauce
  • Grilling vegetables with fresh herbs
Everything tastes different. I prefer sweetAdd sweet flavours to your meals
  • White or brown sugar, jam, honey, syrup (all kinds),
  • Milk or cream sauce or butter with vegetables
  • Fresh fruit, dried fruit (raisins, apricots, apple)
  • Fruit compotes, such as apple, pear, or cranberry compote
  • Chutney, sweet soy sauce, ginger syrup, sweet satay sauce
Use fresh spices and herbsBasil, dill, cardamom, cumin
Try the following foodsPumpkin, red pepper, onion, carrot, sweet potato, sweet fizzy drinks, dried fruits cooked pear, apple compote
Everything tastes different. I prefer sour tastesAdd sour flavours to your meals
  • Lemon, lime
  • Crème fraiche, sour cream, yoghurt
  • Salad dressing with olive oil, vinegar, wine vinegar, tarragon vinegar, salt, pepper, vinegar, gherkins, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, mustard, capers, lime, silverskin pickled onions, ketchup, sour wine sauce, piccalilli
Use fresh herbsLemon, dill, parsley
Try the following foodsEndives, purslane, tomato, sauerkraut, berries, raw vegetables, aged cheese, sour drinks, such as buttermilk, lemonade, and bitter lemon
Everything tastes different. I prefer salty foods. (If you are on a low salt diet due to medical conditions, following these tips is not recommended.)Add salty flavours to your mealsSalted or smoked fish, chicken, or meat, smoked salmon, Marmite, teriyaki, tamari, (aged) cheese, sauces, samphire, salt, sea salt, soy sauce, mustard, sardines, and other canned fish
Use fresh herbs and spicesParsley, chives, cardamom
Try the following foodsSoup, stew, salad with smoked chicken or fish
Everything tastes different. I prefer bitter tastesAdd bitter flavours to your mealsMarmalade, pickles, mustard, capers, spring onions, crème fraiche, yoghurt, dressing with vinegar, tarragon vinegar, lemon, wine vinegar, (aged) cheese, blue cheese
Use fresh herbs and spicesCoriander, turmeric, curcumin, galangal, basil, celery, dill, green herbs, cumin, bay leaves
Everything tastes different. I prefer savoury (umami) tastesAdd umami flavours to your mealsBalsamic vinegar, tomato, tomato ketchup, butter, broth, ginger (fresh, or paste), dried onion, aged cheese, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, red onion, fish sauce, anchovies
Use fresh herbs and spicesBasil, dill, coriander, ginger, cardamom, parsley, shrimp paste
Try the following foodsNasi goreng (Indonesian stir fried rice), bami goreng (Indonesian stir fried noodles)
Everything tastes too strongUse neutral or bland flavours
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Prepare vegetables that have a stronger taste in a white sauce, eggs, fruits, honey, neutral dairy products: milk, cream, porridge, young cheese, processed cheese
  • Neutral grain products: bread, rice, pasta
  • Salads, carrots, peas
Check the temperature of your meals
  • Hot/warm dishes have a stronger taste than cold dishes
  • Try out the temperature at which food tastes best for you
The smell of food makes my appetite disappear. I cannot tolerate strong smells from foodThe temperature of your foodCold food has a weaker smell. Do not eat hot food, choose food that is lukewarm or at room temperature. Choose cold dishes and drinks
Try the following foodsFruit and vegetable smoothie, frozen yoghurt, cold soup such as gazpacho, cold meals or (pasta) salad
I don’t like the taste of any food. Everything tastes like metalAdd flavours to your mealsGrated carrot, honey
Use fresh herbs and spicesBasil, cinnamon, oregano, pepper, thyme
Try the following foods
  • Cold meals
  • The bad taste in your mouth might be caused by a dry mouth. Good oral hygiene and rinsing or drinking before eating to wash away the taste can help to improve the taste. Try using wood, bamboo or plastic instead of metal cutlery
I don’t like the taste of any food. Everything tastes bad (generic bad taste, cardboard box taste, bitter taste)Add fresh, sour and fruit flavours to your meals
  • Fresh and sour flavours, such as pickles, fresh fruit, yoghurt, silverskin onions
  • Strong flavours, such as basil, lemon, peppermint, sweet and sour sauces
  • Fruit flavours, such as cranberry sauce, apple sauce, and fruit chutney
  • Savoury flavours can also help, such as anchovies, mustard, salt
To reduce a bitter tasteGarlic, coriander, cream, watercress
Try the following foods
  • Add lemon or cucumber to water
  • Herring and beetroot salad
  • Combine meat or meat substitutes with something fresh such as cranberry sauce, apple sauce or fruit chutney or marinate in for example fruit juice with vinegar
  • Yoghurt with fruit

(A bad taste can also result from a dry mouth. Good oral hygiene and rinsing or drinking before eating to wash away the taste can help to improve the taste)

If you are dealing with taste changes as a result of cancer and its treatment, you may be interested in our Ryan Riley cookbooks:

Order a free Ryan Riley recipe booklet

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