Research Shows Taste isn’t Just on Tip of Tongue

Friday 31 January, 2014

Researchers have taken the first step in solving taste problems for cancer patients by developing a new classification system that identifies specific elements of taste, as well as related problems that can be incorrectly thought of as taste.

Traditionally, dietitians and other clinicians have struggled to support people with taste problems as the word ‘taste’ can relate to so many factors. It is not until the exact problems are identified that solutions can be sought.

The taste of food as detected on the tastebuds is only one component of how a person experiences the flavour of a particular food or drink. Flavour is also affected by the following factors, all of which can be altered during cancer treatment:
• Texture of food or a dry mouth
• Smell
• Appetite
• Chemesthesis (the sensation of hot and cold such as the burn of chilli or coolness of menthol)
• Food liking (the anticipation of or immediate sensation of pleasure when eating)
• Situation (for example a negative association with a hospital setting)
• Other oral sensations, including offensive or metallic tastes in the mouth

Boltong’s Taxonomy of Taste is a classification system which defines all of these factors and links the language used by patients to describe their symptoms to a diagnosis, which could be a problem with the taste buds or a different problem altogether. This emerging classification system will help dietitians and other health professionals assess the specific problem cancer patients are experiencing and provide suitable advice to tackle the problem at hand.

Head of Cancer Council Victoria’s Cancer Information and Support Services, Dr Anna Boltong, developed the taxonomy as part of her PhD research.

“I started my PhD with the aim of curing taste problems but instead discovered that ‘taste’ is not just about taste. I devised a classification system whereby on careful questioning of a person with cancer related symptoms, the true problem can be identified and then suitable advice provided depending on the nature of the problem.”

The research will also be incorporated into Cancer Council’s support services, such as the Cancer Council Helpline (13 11 20).

“This will help our cancer nurses provide advice to people facing specific eating and drinking problems during treatment,” Dr Boltong said.

"At the moment we have comprehensive assessment tools and advice for other treatment related symptoms like nausea, vomiting and dry mouth but we have never had guidelines for assessing and treating taste problems. Until now, advice has been very general, and in fact quite vague.

“Now we can start to tailor advice to specific problems, for example a patient who reports that everything tastes like cardboard might actually be suffering from a lack of saliva which affects food texture, rather than a fault with their taste buds.”

If you have a cancer question and would like to speak to an experienced cancer nurse in confidence, please call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.