Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Coping with taste changes

  • Keep your doctor informed. Your body needs nutrition, especially when undergoing rigorous cancer treatment. If you find that changes in taste and smell are limiting your food intake or causing significant weight loss, be sure to let your doctor know. Your health care team can recommend ways to increase your calorie intake, such as through vitamin and mineral supplementation and protein shakes.
  • Practice good oral hygiene. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can disrupt the bacteria balance in the mouth and irritate the taste buds. Keeping your mouth clean and healthy helps food taste better. Gently brush your teeth, gums and tongue with a soft bristled toothbrush in the morning, before and after meals, and before bedtime. Choose a mild-tasting, non-abrasive toothpaste with fluoride.
  • Rinse your mouth frequently. Rinsing can help prevent infections, improve the healing of mouth sores and neutralize bad tastes in the mouth. Try rinsing with a mild solution of water, baking soda and salt before meals. If this works temporarily, repeat the rinse halfway through a meal.
  • Visit your dentist. Dental problems, oral infections and dry mouth can affect the taste of food. Your dentist can check the health of your mouth and help you understand the oral side effects of cancer treatment. Your dentist can also provide rinses to fight infection in the mouth and medication to increase saliva production.
  • Chew sugar-free gum or mints. If you have a bad taste in your mouth, try sugar-free mints, gum, hard candies, lemon drops, etc. This can also help control a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth and help relieve mouth dryness by stimulating saliva. Tea, ginger ale and sports drinks may also rid the mouth of bad tastes.
  • Eat small, frequent meals. Instead of three large meals a day, try to eat small, frequent meals six to eight times per day. To add calories and nutrients in between meals, eat healthy snacks throughout the day. Drink eight glasses of liquids daily to keep your body well hydrated. Avoid cigarette smoking, which can make taste changes worse.
  • Experiment with different foods. Eating can become more enjoyable when you are open to trying new foods. Choose and prepare foods that smell and taste good to you, even if the food is unfamiliar. Also, since your taste buds may change from day to day, keep a variety of foods on hand. If foods taste metallic, use plastic utensils and glass cookware and drink beverages from bottles, not cans.
  • Eat foods at the right temperature. Cold or chilled foods may taste better than warm or hot foods. Also, cold or room-temperature foods also have less of an aroma. If you do eat warm foods, try to eliminate bad cooking odors that can trigger nausea by using an exhaust fan, cooking on an outdoor grill, or buying precooked foods.
  • Add seasoning/spices to food. To improve the taste of the food, flavor foods with seasonings, herbs and spices (e.g., sugar, lemon, mint, dill, basil, oregano, chili powder, rosemary, garlic, ginger, salt, cinnamon). Try marinating meat, poultry or fish in fruit juices, sweet wines, salad dressing, vinegars, sauces and gravies.
  • Choose your foods wisely. Since taste changes can limit your food intake, when you do eat, make sure you choose healthy foods that are high in protein and calories. Also, avoid eating your favorite foods during chemotherapy to prevent the possibility of learned food aversions. The following are additional suggestions:
    • If foods taste bitter or metallic, try sweeter-tasting foods or use sugar/sugar substitutes. Cook meats like beef and pork in a sweet or sour sauce, citrus fruit juice, or vinegar. You can also substitute red meat (which is prone to tasting metallic) for other protein-rich foods like chicken, eggs, fish, peanut butter, nuts, beans, or dairy products. Also, try eating tart foods, such as citrus fruits or lemonade (unless you have mouth sores).
    • If foods taste overly sweet, try adding some salt to the food or dilute it with water. If everything tastes sweet, try more acidic foods.
    • If foods taste too salty, try a variety of low-salt or sodium-reduced products. To mask the salty flavor, try adding sugar to foods like soups, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad dressings and casseroles.
    • If foods taste strong, try mild-tasting foods, such as plain crackers, toast, dry cereals, mashed potatoes, milk, steamed rice, plain yogurt, plain noodles and butter, custard, pudding, cottage cheese, sherbet and gelatin.
    • If foods taste bland, try alternate bites of different tasting foods within a meal, such as cottage cheese and pineapple, canned fruit and plain yogurt, or grilled cheese and tomato juice. Sour-tasting foods can also stimulate your taste buds and saliva flow, and salt can perk up foods that are difficult to taste.
  • Make mealtime an enjoyable experience. Eat in a comfortable, relaxed environment and avoid the sight and smell of foods that cause unpleasantness. To keep mealtime interesting, vary the time, place and surroundings. You may find that you eat more when you are socializing, so invite friends or family members to join you. To distract yourself, you could also listen to your favorite music or television show while you eat.
  • Consult with a dietitian. A dietitian can help you make changes in food choice and preparations to minimize the impact of taste changes and help you meet your calorie and protein needs. Your dietitian may recommend appetite stimulants or vitamins and supplements, such as zinc sulfate. If you can’t eat solid foods, your dietitian may recommend liquid or powdered meal replacements and shakes.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.