UMass Amherst sensory expert seeks strategies to help cancer patients eat well

UMass Amherst

The simple pleasure of tasting and savoring food is an important part of anyone's daily life, but for many cancer patients can be lost at least temporarily due to the disease itself or the side effects from treatment, such as chemotherapy, according to Alissa Nolden, PhD, sensory scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a new study published in the journal Nutrients.

Nolden and colleagues set out to review the literature about the impact of cancer patients' sense of taste and smell on their food behavior, defined as any behavior that affects patients' overall nutritional health, such as their desire to eat, food preferences, and consumption. Nolden said in a statement that her goal is to develop a better understanding of changes in taste and how that affects cancer patients' ability to enjoy food and meet optimum nutritional needs during and after treatment.

The review evaluated 11 studies published between 1982 and 2018 that psychophysically measured taste and smell function and assessed some aspect of food behavior. Nolden said she found a reduced taste function, particularly for sweet flavors, among people with cancer. The diminished taste was associated with a reduced appetite; avoidance of certain foods, including meat; and a lower intake of calories and protein.

The studies reviewed measured patients' ability to perceive sweet, using sucrose; sour, using citric acid; bitter, using urea or quinine; salty, using sodium chloride; and in three of the studies, umami, using monosodium glutamate. Although a significant number of people with cancer report differences in smell, there wasn't any study that showed a relationship between food behavior and smell function, Nolden said.

The paper points out that cancer treatment affects taste and smell in different ways. Oral surgery may damage chemosensory nerves, whereas chemotherapy is likely to disrupt taste bud renewal.

Further research is needed to measure sensory changes and understand their various mechanisms, Nolden said. Additional data may help scientists one day develop treatments to preserve taste bud renewal during chemotherapy and to create oral supplements that will taste better to patients.

"People undergoing cancer treatment often report changes in taste or smell, but few studies have attempted to measure directly how this affects eating behavior," Nolden said in a statement. "Self-reported taste function can be challenging to fully understand patients' experiences. In terms of developing new foods or beverages that better suit their taste function and possible strategies or treatments, we need to know exactly what they're experiencing."