When food doesn’t taste right: managing taste and smell changes

Senior grandfather with grey hair and beard sitting alone in the kitchen eating breakfastTaste and smell changes are common before, during, and after cancer treatment. These changes are often caused by the location of the cancer, chemotherapy or other medications, as well as changes in saliva or tissues in the mouth during certain types of radiation treatment. Many people experience taste or even the desire for certain foods change from day-to-day. Try not to get frustrated, and keep a variety of foods and flavors on hand. Don’t be afraid to try something new! Appropriate nutrition remains important at every stage, so consider some of these tips to help improve your nutritional intake.

If foods have little or no taste:
• Choose fruit marinades for meats, or use lemon, herbs and spices, pickles or hot sauce to season foods.
• Citrus or vinegar tends to draw out flavor and our taste buds.

If foods have an “off” taste:
• Fruity and salty flavors are often well accepted and taste correctly.
• Sugar-free lemon drops, gum or mints may improve mouth taste.

For bitter or metallic tastes:
• Use spices or seasonings like onion, garlic or chili powder.
• Suck on lemon drops or mints.
• Eat using bamboo or plastic silverware or chopsticks.
• Flavor water with lemon juice or other fruit flavors.
• Avoid using metal utensils or eating/drinking anything stored in a metal packaging, or cooked in cast iron.

For too salty, bitter or acidic tastes:
• Choose foods that are naturally sweet rather than salty or acidic.
• Use low sodium products.

Meats taste bitter or strange:
• Add fruit-based marinade or sweet and sour sauce to meats.
• Choose alternative protein sources like eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, nut butters or beans.

Difficulty or pain when eating or swallowing:
• Avoid spicy and acidic foods (i.e. pepper, lemon/citrus).
• Choose softer foods including eggs, chicken/tuna salad, yogurt, cottage cheese, pudding, etc.
• Consume medical nutrition beverages (i.e. Boost, Ensure, etc.)
• Add sauces, gravies, broth or juices to foods to make swallowing easier.
• Ask your doctor about mouth rinses to numb your mouth before eating.

When smells are bothersome:
• Avoid cooking areas during meal prep, crack a window, or cook outside when able.
• Eat foods that aren’t cooked such as smoothies, cold sandwiches, crackers and cheese, or yogurt and fruit.
• Avoid use of microwaves as they spread food odors.
• Use a cup with a lid and straw to mask food odors.

Keep your mouth clean:
• Brush your teeth twice daily and try rinsing your mouth with a basic mouthwash before eating.
• Make up your own mouthwash by mixing up: 1 quart of water, ¾ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking soda.

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About Samantha Reed, RD, LD

Samantha Reed, RD, LD, has been working as a registered and licensed dietitian for nearly six years. She is the oncology dietitian at UofL James Graham Brown Cancer Center. Samantha completed her undergraduate degree, followed by dietetic internship at Western Kentucky University. She previously worked in an acute care setting providing Medical Nutrition Therapy for patients in the ICU, undergoing transplant, and following surgical oncology procedures. She is currently preparing for becoming a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition. Her areas of interest and specialties include malnutrition, nutrition support, and nutrition for cancer prevention. She also enjoys working with dietetic students, helping to prepare them for a career in clinical nutrition.

All posts by Samantha Reed, RD, LD