“Plain water started to taste different,” she tells Healthline. “It started to have this metallic taste — exactly the same as if you were to lick a metal spoon.”
Then, the metal tinge spread to food. “I used to love steamed fish, but during chemo, I couldn’t even take the dish, it smelled so awful. The fishy smell was so bad I’d throw up,” she says.
The changes were manageable, but the experience was alienating. “It can be quite a struggle when people don’t understand what you mean by loss of taste. To them, the food tastes exactly fine and normal,” Teh says.
She learned to cook, which was a good way to occupy her free time and adapt to her new taste buds. But even that was hard, emotionally, at times. “Sometimes not getting the perfect taste with chemo taste buds can be severely depressing,” she adds.
Having your favorite foods suddenly taste like sawdust or metal is surprisingly common among people undergoing chemo.
But Vandana Sheth, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who works with cancer patients undergoing chemo in her Los Angeles-based practice, would anecdotally agree that a majority of patients experience dysgeusia.
“Changes in the sense of taste and smell are common side effects experienced by
cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and can last for a few days or even months,” Sheth explains.
New companies are supporting people undergoing chemo with food and drinks that taste good
Luckily, in our foodie-obsessed world, creative companies are coming to the rescue.
Launched earlier this year in the Czech Republic, Mamma Beer is an alcohol-free brew specifically formulated to taste good to folks experiencing dysgeusia.
Created by Jana Drexlerová after undergoing chemotherapy herself for breast cancer in 2011, the entrepreneur told NPR she was motivated by disappointment at how much everything tasted like sand.
She set out to craft a formula that would circumvent the newly unsavory flavors and not only taste good to people undergoing chemo, but also boost nutrition and improve health during treatment.
This is why Mamma Beer is alcohol-free (which you should avoid during chemo), crafted with apples (to help counteract metallic tastes), and fortified with potassium and vitamin B (we don’t have studies to confirm this helps, but it certainly doesn’t hurt).
The secret weapon to Mamma Beer, though, lies in Drexlerová’s other goal.
In a country where beer is a crucial part of the culture, she wanted to give women back a sense of normalcy during a process that transforms your body and life into anything but normal.
It’s not just beer that’s coming to the rescue of impaired taste buds.
Home Care Nutrition, a meal company for caretakers, launched the line Vital Cuisine, which offers high-protein, high-nutrient shakes and ready-to-serve meals featuring special additions like algae protein to give the bland meals a nicer, gourmet mouthfeel.
These foods and drinks are specifically designed to taste good to chemo patients. But they can also help people find more interest in eating healthy food.
“Taste changes can really turn people off to eating enough food. Patients can start losing weight and not get enough calories or protein, which are critical to support the body during treatment,” says Seattle-based nutritionist Ginger Hultin, RDN, a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition.
Having your once enjoyable food taste like shredded paper is enough to make many hardly want to eat anything.
The changes are different for everyone, but the most common report is food tasting metallic, says Hultin.
Proteins like meat often become repulsive. Strong smells and bold flavors — even of food you once loved — can start to smell and taste foul, she explains.
3 tasty recipes if you have chemo mouth
The category of dysgeusia-designed fare is still new and is much more popular abroad.
In addition to Mamma Beer, Amsterdam boasts the HungerNDThirst Foundation, an organization that helps people find relief from dysgeusia through education, research, tastings, and product development.
In England, the nonprofit Life Kitchen offers free cooking classes at restaurants around London to people undergoing chemo.
For those of us stateside, circumventing the changes in taste go back to the basics.
Teh, for example, started getting heavy-handed with spices. “I adapted to the changes in taste by trying out different spices that are good for health, like basil, turmeric, ginger, and black pepper, and trying new cooking methods like frying, grilling, baking, and pan-searing,” she explains.
Other ways to improve the way food tastes
- Eat with plastic instead of metal cups or silverware.
- Try cool or frozen foods like smoothies, which Hultin says can be soothing and offer a lot of nutrients packed into one cup.
- Add herbs, spices, lemon, lime, sugar, and salt to help amp up the flavor, Sheth suggests.
- Opt for plant proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, or tempeh if meat sounds sickening, Hultin says.
Need some help getting started? Try one of Hultin’s recipes, full of both flavor for chemo taste buds and nutrients to help your body heal.
Fresh lemon honey tapioca pudding
The flavor of the lemon zest shines through the coconut milk base, while the pudding consistency can still be appetizing on days you aren’t feeling well.
Vegan turmeric banana mango lassi
Mango, yogurt, banana, and anti-inflammatory turmeric combine for a delicious gut-soothing drink.
Banana ginger oats
“Bananas are rich in fructooligosaccharides, which act as a prebiotic and support good bacteria in the digestive system. And ginger famously soothes the stomach and provides a spicy kick to any recipe,” Hultin writes.
Rachael Schultz is a freelance writer who focuses primarily on why our bodies and brains work the way they do and how we can optimize both (without losing our sanity). She’s worked on staff at Shape and Men’s Health and contributes regularly to a slew of national health and fitness publications. She’s most passionate about hiking, traveling, mindfulness, cooking, and really, really good coffee. You can find her work at rachael-schultz.com.