Tips for managing taste and smell changes

There are many ways to help mange taste and smell changes. A dietitian can work with you to identify the causes and to develop a plan for managing the changes.

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Taste changes

  • Experiment with foods and drinks. You may no longer enjoy your favourite foods, but find that you can tolerate or enjoy foods you previously didn’t. For instance, a preference for sweet or savoury foods often reverses during treatment.
  • If your food preferences affect the quality of your diet, look for alternatives. For example, it is common to no longer enjoy meat during treatment. However, meat is a good source of protein, which is an important nutrient to enable your body to cope with the demands of cancer and treatment. If you find meat less appealing, try other good protein sources such as cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, baked beans, kidney beans, lentils or chickpeas.

Many people describe common changes to the taste of food and drink during treatment. Here are suggestions of how to manage these changes.

bland Sometimes food may seem tasteless. Make use of seasonings such as fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chilli, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, pickles or Asian-style sauces.
overpowering As you may be overly sensitive to strong flavours, spicy or hot foods might become overpowering. Minimise the use of chilli and spices. You may also need to avoid carbonated drinks, mints or chewing gum. Choose subtly flavoured alternatives instead.
too salty Some people describe food tasting too salty. Avoid adding salt to your cooking and try lower-salt alternatives in place of your usual foods. For example, try white cheeses, such as mozzarella, cream cheese, fresh pecorino or ricotta cheese, instead of highly processed cheese slices or tasty cheese. Try roast meats in sandwiches instead of processed meats such as cured ham or salami.
too sweet Many foods you would not normally describe as sweet-tasting may start to taste too sweet. Try plain breakfast cereals with less added sugar, such as porridge or bran flakes, instead of cereals with added dried fruit, honey or other sweeteners.
too bitter or metallic A bitter or metallic taste in the mouth is a common problem. Certain foods can taste bitter or metallic, so avoid these foods for a time and try refreshing food or liquids instead. Nibbling on moist fruit, such as berries or melon, or sucking boiled sweets may help overcome unpleasant tastes in the mouth. Ginger-flavoured lollies may be helpful, as may small sips of flavoured drinks. Artificially sweetened food and drinks, rather than those with natural sugar added, are recommended for good dental health.
like “cardboard”,
“straw” or “sand”
Some people experience a dry mouth during treatment, which can make food feel like “cardboard”, “straw” or “sand”. If this occurs, choose soft, moist foods and add moist condiments and accompaniments to dishes. Make sure you drink enough fluid and keep your mouth hydrated and lubricated. Your treatment team can recommend products to stimulate or replace saliva.

Smell changes

The smell of food can bother some people during treatment. To manage this change try to:

  • Remove yourself from food preparation areas and choose plainer, cold or room temperature foods. Use exhaust fans, cover pots with lids or cook outdoors
  • Ask friends and family to prepare food for you so you don’t need to be exposed to cooking smells
  • Avoid strong-smelling foods or your favourite foods just before or during chemotherapy treatment. It is common to develop an aversion to foods eaten at this time
  • Ensure nausea is well controlled. Your treatment team can suggest options to help relieve nausea.
  • A bad taste in the mouth can be a result of experiencing an unpleasant odour or from an unhealthy or dry mouth. Test whether the sensation can be rinsed away, even briefly, or minimised by blocking the nose or consuming specific foods or drinks.
  • Practicing good oral hygiene is very important during and after treatment. Clean your teeth with a soft toothbrush after each meal, and regularly rinse your mouth with salt water or the mouthwash suggested by your treatment team.

This information was last reviewed in February 2015
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