Taste and smell: combating cancer treatment’s side effects

By guest blogger Abby Smith, dietetic intern

It is crucial that patients receiving cancer treatment achieve adequate nutrition in order to maintain energy and to support healing and recovery throughout treatment.

Unfortunately, the side effects of certain cancers and treatments often make it difficult to consume enough calories and to make nutritious choices – and that usually is a result of changes in the senses of taste and smell.

For instance, some food may begin to taste bland or may have a bitter or metallic taste. Foods that used to smell good may no longer hold that same appeal. There are several ways to manage these side effects throughout the course of treatment.

The following food tips can help to cope with changes in sense of taste:

  • Marinate foods to increase flavor, especially meats which can have a more bitter taste. For example, marinate chicken in soy sauce, chicken broth, Italian dressing, teriyaki sauce or barbecue sauce to boost flavor.
  • Try tart foods and drinks. Be aware: Tart foods have higher levels of acid in them and may cause pain or discomfort if your mouth or throat is sore. Squeeze a lemon or other citrus fruit wedge onto foods or into beverages. Add some vinegar or vinegar-based condiments to foods.
  • Make foods sweeter by adding a spoonful of honey or maple syrup to counteract salty, bitter or acidic tastes.
  • Add extra flavor to foods by using herbs and sauces. Season vegetables with dried or fresh herbs, such as basil, thyme or rosemary to increase flavor. Add gravy or sauces to meats to enhance flavor.
  • Eat with plastic forks and spoons to decrease a metallic taste.
  • Suck on sugarless hard candy to help with undesirable mouth tastes.

To manage changes in sense of smell, the best coping mechanism is to reduce food smells. Try these tips:

  • Serve foods at room temperature.
  • Keep foods covered.
  • Use cups with lids.
  • Drink through a straw.
  • Use a kitchen fan when cooking.
  • Cook outdoors when possible.
  • When cooking, open lids so that they face away from you to decrease exposure to smells.

Additional tips for managing changes in sense of taste and smell include:

  • Talk with a dietitian, dentist or your doctor or nurse.
  • Keep mouth clean and fresh by brushing.
  • Use special mouthwashes, if recommended by your doctor.

For more information, read the National Cancer Institute’s “Eating Hints” booklet. (PDF)

The following recipe provides a high-protein, nutritious and delicious main dish great for combating changes in the sense of taste:

Lemon chicken


  • 4 skinned and boned chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 lb.)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • ¼ cup chicken broth
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 8 lemon slices
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Garnish: lemon slices


  1. Cut each chicken breast in half lengthwise. Place chicken between 2 sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap; flatten to 1/4-inch thickness, using a rolling pin or flat side of a meat mallet. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Lightly dredge chicken in flour, shaking off excess.
  2. Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook half of chicken in skillet 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown and done. Transfer chicken to a serving platter, and keep warm. Repeat procedure with 1 Tbsp. butter and remaining olive oil and chicken.
  3. Add broth and lemon juice to skillet, and cook 1 to 2 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened, stirring to loosen particles from bottom of skillet. Add 8 lemon slices.
4. Remove skillet from heat; add parsley and remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and stir until butter melts. Pour sauce over chicken. Serve immediately. Garnish, if desired.


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