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When Food Just Doesn’t Taste the Same

Tips for Coping with Taste Aversions Caused by Cancer Treatment

by Laura McLaughlin, RN, PhD, and Suzanne Mahon, RN, DNSc, AOCN, APNG

Wellness image

Though coffee may not taste the same as it did before treatment, you may still find pleasure and comfort in a warm morning beverage.

Taste helps identify food preferences and stimulates appetite. Food has the power to comfort, as pleasant-tasting foods stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. Taste also helps identify whether food is safe to consume, because foods that taste abnormal, bitter, or sour may be spoiled or tainted.

Taste loss, or aversion, on the other hand, is a common, but under-recognized problem for people treated for cancer. Cancer treatments resulting in mouth sores may cause taste changes. You may experience an annoying metallic or bitter taste and burning mouth pain. Fortunately, taste will usually return to normal after your mouth sores have healed. Additionally, taste may be altered because of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery in the mouth. After treatment for head and neck cancer, taste may be permanently altered if taste buds do not fully recover or are damaged from treatment.

So what can you do if your taste is impaired? Here are some tips to help you manage some of the taste aversions caused by cancer treatment.

Taste is only one aspect of flavor recognition. Flavors are also recognized by their appearance, smell, texture, and temperature.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Laura McLaughlin

Dry Mouth
Cancer treatments to the head and neck can affect the salivary glands and cause dry mouth. Without enough saliva, food particles cannot reach the taste cells. Dry mouth also disrupts flavor recognition because thick saliva is very salty, and too much salt can affect the way foods taste. If thick saliva is a problem, rinse your mouth before eating and drink extra fluids to help food particles reach the taste buds and help balance the salt content of your saliva. Chewing carefully and swirling food around in your mouth can also be helpful. Pureed foods, soups, sauces, and gravy are good choices when you are experiencing dry mouth.

Diminished Taste
There are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Like primary colors, combinations of these basic tastes result in countless flavors. Experiment with different foods and seasonings. If flavors in general don’t taste right, try everything. Foods you never liked before may now taste good to you. This is especially true of bitter foods, like broccoli, cabbage, and asparagus.

Often after cancer treatment, one basic taste is more impaired than others. If you miss the pleasant bitterness of coffee, try brewing it more strongly or use less cream and sweetener. If milk chocolate tastes too sweet, try bittersweet or dark chocolate.

Taste is only one aspect of flavor recognition. Flavors are also recognized by their appearance, smell, texture, and temperature. So when food just doesn’t taste the same, try focusing on the nontaste aspects of flavor.

♦ Appearance Eat pretty, colorful foods. Think of how a juicy burger makes your mouth water when you see one in a commercial.

♦ Smell Eat warm foods, as they are easier to smell than cold foods. Use aromatic herbs generously.

♦ Texture Smooth and creamy foods are good choices at any phase of cancer treatment. If you have good saliva flow and no mouth sores, try experimenting with food texture by eating foods that are crunchy, chewy, gooey, and spicy.

♦ Temperature Though coffee or tea may not taste the same as it did before treatment, there may still be pleasure and comfort in a warm morning beverage. It feels good to hold a warm mug, inhale the familiar aroma, and experience the warming sensation.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Suzanne Mahon

Bad Taste and Burning Mouth Pain
If you have a bad taste in your mouth or are experiencing burning mouth pain, avoid temperature extremes. Warm or cool foods may be more soothing than hot or cold foods. Smooth, creamy, and blended foods are good choices because they do not overstimulate the nerves on the tongue that cause these unpleasant sensations.

Loss of Appetite
When food doesn’t taste good, eating becomes a chore. Some people with severely impaired taste may even forget to eat. If you are dealing with loss of appetite, set aside specific meal times, and make the dining experience more pleasant by eating with friends and family.

Understanding the nature of taste aversions can help you identify the best ways to cope with these problems. Learning what works best for you is the key to enjoying food again when it just doesn’t taste the same because of cancer treatment.

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Dr. Laura McLaughlin is an assistant professor of Nursing at Saint Louis University School of Nursing in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Suzanne Mahon is a professor of Internal Medicine and Nursing at Saint Louis University.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2012.