Date issued: July 2021
Review date: July 2023
Many cancer treatments can result in changes to your sense of taste. You may find that foods taste metallic, very sweet or salty, or simply have no flavour at all. This can have a big impact on appetite and enjoyment of food. Maintaining a good diet after treatment is vital for your recovery. This leaflet aims to provide advice and ideas on how to enhance the taste and enjoyment of the food you eat. There is a glossary in the back for any words you may not have heard before.
The Science of Taste
Normally, we associate taste with our tongue. In fact, our tongue only gives us five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoury). There are many more flavours beyond these five, and our ability to perceive them is mostly due to smell. We can detect odours not just from sniffing food but also by chewing to release aromas that travel to the nose. When we swallow, these aromas are pushed further up to the nose, giving us even more flavour.
The sensation of the food in the mouth also contributes to flavour. The texture (chewy, creamy, crunchy, sticky etc.) makes a big difference to your enjoyment of food. Think about how some people like crunchy, dry toast whilst others prefer it soft and soaked in butter. These personal preferences will have an impact on our eating experience.
Saliva also plays a role in our perception of taste, by dissolving taste substances and transporting them to taste receptors. Dry mouth can be a major side effect of cancer treatment, preventing taste substances being dissolved or transported efficiently.
Some foods can create sensations in the mouth/nose by stimulating the trigeminal nerve. This gives you the feeling of burning or cooling, even though the temperature of the food is not altered. Think about how mustard tastes hot, yet mint tastes cold. The temperature of the food is not altered, only your body’s perception of it.
With so many factors influencing taste, it is understandable why every person’s recovery of taste is so different. What works for one person may not work for another. It is important to keep experimenting to find flavours, textures and sensations that work for you.
You may not have come across the term ‘umami’ before. Umami is a Japanese word roughly meaning ‘deliciousness’, and is best described as ‘intensely savoury’. Think soy sauce, parmesan cheese, Marmite, bacon. It also is found in peas, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
There are two types of umami, combining the two types can make for the tastiest dishes. This is called synergistic umami; examples of this are bacon and eggs, cheese and ham, chicken and mushroom. The use of umami in a dish can enhance the other basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter) and also stimulate saliva production. This makes it the most important flavour for the enjoyment of food.
Tips for Taste
The following tips are general suggestions for anyone struggling with taste changes:
- Try to keep your mouth clean and fresh, especially before and after your meals. Try cleaning your teeth with non-flavoured toothpaste and a soft toothbrush before meals to clear your palate.
- If you struggle with lack of saliva, experiment with different dry mouth products or take small sips of fluid whilst eating. Fizzy waters can be refreshing. Always have a sauce or gravy with your meal.
- Plastic or wooden cutlery may help with metallic tastes. You may also want to avoid tinned foods. Pineapple can help eliminate metallic tastes but be careful if your mouth is sore.
- If the smell of food is off-putting, choose cold foods such as thinly-sliced cooked meats, cereals or pasta/potato salads.
- Make your food look appetising and eat in a relaxing environment. If large portions are overwhelming, use a small plate, you can always go back for a second helping later on.
- Vegetarian alternatives such as tofu or meat-replacement products (e.g. Quorn) are often easier to chew than meat and take on flavours well.
Foods to Enhance Taste
The following ingredients can be added to your regular dishes to enhance taste. Not all suggestions will be suitable for you but don’t be afraid to experiment. You may find that things you didn’t like before have now suddenly become your secret weapon!
- Garlic/black garlic/ginger*
- Spices: ground cumin or coriander, garam masala, turmeric, smoky paprika, garlic or onion powder
- Herbs: mint, parsley, coriander, basil, rosemary
- Cheeses: parmesan, Stilton, mature cheddar, feta
- Rose harissa*
- Sherry vinegar*
- Lemon/lime juice and zest*
- Soy sauce/Worcestershire sauce
- Tomato sauce*
- Mushrooms (particularly shitake mushrooms)
- Caramelised or roasted onions
- Sundried tomatoes*
- Bacon/cured meats
- Miso paste
- Umami paste
- Maple syrup/honey
- Peanut butter
- Rosewater/orange blossom water
- Watermelon/honeydew melon
*These suggestions may be irritating if your mouth is sore, so proceed with caution.
These ingredients can be added into regular meals during cooking, or sprinkled over right at the end. Some examples to get you started include:
- Marinating meat, fish or vegetables in spices or herbs and oil, to intensify the flavour.
- Grating parmesan cheese over meat, vegetables, soups, stews, scrambled eggs etc.
- Roasting vegetables in a thin coating of Marmite, harissa or miso paste.
- Adding soy sauce to soups, stews, sauces etc.
- Adding a squeeze of lemon or lime to your meal, or a sprinkle of sumac.
- Sprinkling cinnamon or nutmeg over your porridge/yoghurt or stirring in vanilla or peanut butter.
- Adding some chopped mint and honey to your fruit.
- Roasting meat, vegetables and fruit to get a more intense flavour.
You also do not need to cook everything from scratch.
- Grate cheese over your favourite ready meal or adding a splash of soy/Worcestershire sauce.
- Add spices, herbs or flavoured oils to canned soup.
- Serve cream, custard or ice cream with ready-made puddings, to give them more moisture
Pea & Mint Soup
Fry an onion in 100g of butter until soft. Add a small bag of frozen peas and fry for a few minutes. Pour over 850ml of chicken/vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Simmer until the peas are tender. Stir in 1-2 tbsp. of mint jelly and a large bunch of fresh mint leaves. Blend until smooth, season with salt/pepper if you wish. Crumble over some feta cheese to serve.
- Add a squeeze of lemon or grated lemon zest
- Stir in crème fraiche or cream to boost the calories and make a creamier texture
- Add chopped asparagus or diced potato before stock
- Use any leftovers as a pasta sauce or add to risotto
Umami Scrambled Egg
Whisk together 2-4 eggs with a splash of Worcestershire or soy sauce. Melt a knob of butter over a low heat and add the eggs to the
pan, stirring gently until they are just cooked but still soft. Finely chop 6 sundried tomatoes and stir into the cooked eggs. Grate some parmesan cheese over the top.
- Experiment with different cheeses, such as goats cheese or mature cheddar
- Stir in cooked spinach or fried mushrooms, or serve with soft asparagus
- You could also add chopped olives or umami paste
Fry a finely chopped onion in a large knob of butter Add 200g sliced mushrooms and 2 crushed garlic cloves, fry until the mushrooms are golden brown. Use more butter if needed. Add 150g of orzo (rice-shaped pasta) and some dried herbs (e.g. thyme). Pour in 500ml of low sodium chicken/vegetable stock and cook until the pasta is soft. Add more stock if the pan looks too dry. Stir in a few tbsp. of cream and grate over parmesan cheese. A splash of Worcestershire sauce will add a savoury finish.
Stir in a spoonful of pesto right at the end
Experiment with different mushrooms, such as shitake, oyster or chestnut mushrooms
Add a poached or fried egg on top
Fry some bacon, chorizo or pancetta in the pan before the onions. You can discard this if meat is difficult to swallow, but the oils will add flavour.
White chocolate miso sauce
Heat 200ml of double cream in a pan or microwave until hot, but not quite boiling. Pour over 170g white chocolate, broken into small pieces. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Stir in 1 teaspoon of miso paste, or more to taste. Serve over ice cream or fruit, or mix into custard/yoghurt for a flavour boost.
Add some cardamom or vanilla into the cream as it’s heating so the flavours infuse
Use mint extract instead of miso paste, or try dark chocolate instead of white chocolate
These recipes are just a few ideas to start you off. The following websites may also be helpful:
World Cancer Research Fund
Macmillan Cancer Support
Cancer Research UK
Sprinkle of SaLT:
Black garlic: a type of aged garlic made by slowly heating garlic bulbs, making it taste sweet and syrupy
Garam Masala: a blend of ground spices, originating from South Asia, common in Indian cuisines.
Miso paste: a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans, rich in vitamins and minerals
Rose harissa: a Tunisian red pepper paste, made with rose petals, look for milder varieties
Sumac: a spice with a lemon/lime tartness, it can be sprinkled over most foods to enhance the flavour
Synergistic Umami: the combination of two types of umami (glutamates and nucleotides)
Taste Receptors: a type of receptor in the taste buds that facilitates the sensation of taste
Trigeminal Nerve: the fifth cranial nerve, responsible for sensation in the face
Umami: one of the five basic tastes, intensely savoury
Umami paste: a paste made from umami-rich ingredients, sold in some supermarkets
Za’atar: a fragrant Middle Eastern spice mix