The senses of taste and smell are extremely important in quality of life. Taste cells are located at the base of the tongue and the roof the mouth, as well as the lining of the throat. The average person has about 10,000 taste buds at birth. After the age of 50, the number of taste buds can diminish, affecting the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (the taste associated with monosodium glutamate). Our sense of smell allows us to recognize flavor and many times a loss of taste can actually be the result of the loss of smell.
Dysgeusia, or a change in the sense of taste, can be caused by aging, medications, infections, head injuries, dental problems, radiation therapy for head and neck cancers, chemotherapy, mouth dryness, heavy smoking, vitamin deficiencies, as well as Bell ’s palsy and Sjogren ’s syndrome. Often times, foods taste bland or every food tastes the same. In addition, some people receiving cancer treatments report a metallic or chemical taste in their mouth after eating meat and high protein foods. Taste changes can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, food dislikes, poor nutritional status, and a weakened immune system.
There are no specific treatments for taste problems and not all of the tips below are helpful for every person. It’s important to discuss any taste changes with your doctor. Taste changes caused by mouth infections, dry mouth and dental/gum problems can sometimes be managed by a dentist. The following tips may be helpful in managing taste problems:
- Offer foods that smell and taste good, even if the food is not familiar.
- Eliminate strong cooking smells (use an exhaust fan, cook on an outside grill, purchase precooked foods).
- Cold or room-temperature foods tend to have a less strong smell and typically taste better than hot foods.
- Use plastic utensils and glass cookware to decrease the metallic taste.
- Use sugar-free mint gum or hard candies (mint, lemon, or orange) to hide a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth.
- If red meats don’t taste good, try other sources of protein (poultry, fish, eggs, peanut butter, beans, dairy products).
- Marinate meats in fruit juices, sweet wines, and salad dressings.
- Flavor foods with herbs, spices, sugar, lemon or sauces
- Do not eat one to two hours before and up to three hours after chemotherapy to prevent food aversions that can be caused by nausea and vomiting.
- Avoid favorite foods before chemotherapy to prevent food aversions.
- Rinse with a salt and baking soda solution before meals which can help neutralize bad tastes (1/2 tsp salt + ½ tsp baking soda in 1 cup of warm water).
- Brush and floss daily to keep a clean, healthy mouth.