Tips for Managing Taste Changes

Taste changes are a very common side effect of cancer treatment. Taste changes can range from minor to severe and can affect people differently. For example, some people find sweet or salty foods taste good while others think food tastes way too sweet or salty. Taste alterations happen in many forms including tasting bland, metallic or “off” as if the food is spoiled/rotten even if it’s not. These unpleasant tastes can make eating almost anything difficult. 

Taste changes can be triggered by a variety of causes: 

  • Certain kinds of chemotherapy (drugs that commonly cause taste changes include Cisplatin, Cytoxan, Adriamycin, Fluorouracil (5-FU), Paclitaxel (Taxol, Abraxane) and Vincristine)  

  • Some immunotherapies and targeted drugs 

  • Radiation to the head and neck  

  • Oral thrush infection 

  • Mouth sores or dryness due to certain treatments 

  • Gastric reflux  

  • Some medications used to manage treatment side effects or other health issues 

Taste changes generally improve within 3-4 weeks after treatment ends (sometimes sooner), or when the condition causing the taste changes -- such as thrush or gastric reflux -- is managed. Taste changes can take longer to resolve when caused by head and neck radiation, with improvements generally occurring within 3 weeks to 2 months of the end of treatment, though it is possible to experience some improvements up to one year after -treatment. Some people experience a more permanent “new normal” in how food tastes after head and neck radiation treatment. 

Food tips for managing taste 

In general, enhancing foods with stronger tastes may make foods more palatable. Taking steps to clear tastes in your mouth prior to eating may also help. Experiment to see if any of these strategies below may work for you, keeping in mind that some may irritate your mouth if you’re also experiencing mouth sores. 

  • Season foods with tangy, tart flavors, like lemon, lime, citrus fruits, cranberry juice or sauce, pickled foods, vinegar, and condiments containing vinegar, such as relish, mustard, ketchup, and many bottled flavoring sauces.   

  • Marinate fish, poultry and meat in citrus juices, salad dressing, cooking wine, or sauces like teriyaki or barbeque sauce.  

  • Flavor foods with fresh or dried herbs and spices such as garlic, onions, chili powder, basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary and other seasonings.  

  • Try fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned. 

  • Drizzle vinegar or lemon juice on raw or cooked vegetables. 

  • Mix fresh or frozen fruit into protein shakes or yogurt. 

  • Spread cranberry sauce on sandwiches. 

  • If meat tastes bitter opt for chicken, turkey, fish, yogurt, eggs, cheese, yogurt, legumes, baked beans, tofu or nuts/nut butters for protein. 

  • If the smells of foods are bothersome, try cold or room temperature foods. e.g., Eat anything that seems appealing even if it isn’t something you usually like. You never know which flavors might come through. 

Mealtime strategies to enhance taste 

  • Prior to eating, rinse your mouth with tea, ginger ale, lemonade, or salted water (mix 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp baking soda in 1 quart of warm water).  

  • After eating, suck on lemon drops or mints, or chew gum, to get rid of bad tastes that may linger after a meal.  

  • If food tastes metallic, avoid canned foods, and eat with plastic or bamboo utensils.  

  • Brush and floss your teeth regularly.  

Because nutrition is an important part of tolerating and recovering from treatment, be sure to communicate with your team if taste changes are interfering with your ability to eat enough and maintain your weight.