Why Does Food Taste Bad? Differentiating Between Taste and Smell

For my third OncoLink Blog post, I wanted to dive into the ideas of taste and experience when we actually encounter food. This is something I talk a lot about, and quite frankly something I write about quite frequently. Honestly, there is a lot of content out there from me about this idea. With that being said, I struggled to put together something new with a fresh approach to this idea. I finally settled on this idea and I hope you enjoy it!

In my last blog post, I defined what your senses are and how they come into play during the eating experience. As a refresher, I showed that you experience food with all five of your senses.(Taste, Touch, Sight, Smell and Sound), and that all of that information is filtered through your memories and associations to help decide how you feel about the food that you are eating. Today, I am going to teach you a little more about why food tastes bad to chemo patients, and a few ways to figure out precisely what it is that is putting your appetite off of its game.

As I wrote about before, you actually only taste 5 flavors with your tongue: salty, savory, spicy, sour and sweet. Everything else that you experience as flavor is actually aromas from the food. You experience this as you chew because these smells actually rise from the back of your mouth and out through your nose as you chew and as you breathe. While you only experience 5 flavors with your tongue, your nose is able to detect over a trillion unique scents. This makes it the most developed sense on your entire body!

At Home Activity

Today, we are going to do a little play along at home exercise so that we can truly exercise your sense of taste. You will need the following:

Ingredients Needed

A Notebook or Scrap-Paper to make notes on

1/2 tsp salt (table or kosher)

1/2 tsp soy sauce (not low sodium)

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1/2 tsp red wine vinegar or lemon juice

1/2 tsp sugar


Place each one of these ingredients into a small but separate container, maybe a few small glasses or a few condiment dishes. Whatever is convenient.

Now, you are going to taste each ingredient one at a time. Start with the salt, and move down the list in order making notes on the paper about what each one tastes like and feels like in your mouth to you. Make notes about the intensity of flavor, and whether you liked it or not. The trick here though, is that you have to pinch your nose while the ingredient is in your mouth to prevent your nose from giving you an extra opinion about the flavor.

Things you will notice about each ingredient:

Salt is dry and astringent. It most definitely is easy to recognize as being very salty.

Soy sauce is warm and savory. You will notice it has a depth of flavor you didn’t notice before.

Ground black pepper is spicy, and if you got enough in your mouth it will actually create a burning sensation like that of hot chili peppers.

Red wine vinegar, you will immediately notice that it puts out the fire from the black pepper and creates a sense of lightness in your mouth.

Sugar will taste, of course, sweet. But, it will help to balance out the sour flavor from the vinegar in your mouth.

Wasn’t this a fun exercise? One of the things you will immediately notice is that as soon as you release your nose, the black pepper, soy sauce, and vinegar will fill your nose with more flavors and smells that you did not realize were there initially. These aspects are the aromas that create the depth and character inside of your cooking! I always find it interesting when people say they hate spicy food, but will dump black pepper all over their food.

The Function of the 5 Flavors

Now that we have tasted these flavors in their condensed essence, let’s discuss the function of each flavor inside of cooking.


Salty amplifies all of the other naturally occurring flavors inside of a dish. We always season with salty flavors first because this flavor forms the foundation of all of the other flavors. Seasoning with salty flavors last will blow all of the other flavors out of proportion.


Savory flavors (like soy sauce) give us a sense of deliciousness or umami inside of our cooking. We are always seeking savory flavors as these flavors give us a sense of nutritiousness and satisfaction inside of a meal.


Spicy flavors are a secondary amplifying flavor. Salty lays the foundation, savory makes it delicious, and spicy makes it warm and bold. We don’t need much spicy flavors in our cooking, just a little bit for warmth.


Sour flavors are the lighteners. So far, our first three flavors make the dish big and rich. But sometimes this also translates to a heavy feeling in your mouth. This is where sour flavors come in. A tablespoon or two into a pot of chicken and dumplings (while cooking) will immediately lighten the perceived weight of the dish allowing cancer fighters to feel less fatigued while eating a meal. Sour flavors also help with metallic tastes, which we will talk about more in depth in a combating metallic tastes article.


Sweet is the great balancer. Sour and Sweet are brothers and must be brought in balance to your cooking. Sour lightens the dish, but sweet masks the flavor of the sour and brings harmony to the dish allowing all of the flavors to return and be enjoyed.

By using these flavors in our cooking, we can create better tasting, more satisfying meals that cancer fighters are sure to enjoy the taste of. This helps them go back for more bites and get more complete nutrition. But what if we create the best tasting dishes in the world and our loved ones still won’t eat them? Well then, it is time to consider our sense of smell more intimately.

Understanding Smell

While great flavor can work to keep the spoons moving from bowl to mouth, it only works if we can get someone interested in food from a distance. Flavor is better thought of as an action reinforcer, because it only works when the food is in direct contact with the tongue. Our sense of smell though can help to build or diminish an appetite from a distance.

At Home Activity

Let’s do a similar exercise using common household herbs and spices.

Ingredients Needed

More paper, and a writing utensil

Ground Cumin

Any two other herbs or spices

For my article, I will use chili powder and dried oregano.


Very simply, open the container and take a big sniff through your nose of each herb/spice. Write down the name of it. Then write down what it reminds you of, and very simply whether you like it or don’t like it.


Cumin, warm, smells like tacos, I like the smell of this.

Oregano, grassy, herbaceous, hints of lemon and black pepper, I like the smell of this.

Chili powder, warm, smells like peppers, I like the smell of this.

This is an exercise I frequently refer to as “the smell game” when I teach my Cooking for Chemo class. This game allows you to identify smells that you like or don’t like. Why is this important? It is important because a foul odor, or an overly pungent smell can put you off your appetite and induce nausea very quickly. This is obviously the opposite effect that we desire when we are cooking for cancer patients! When I was cooking for my mother during her cancer treatments, I would always use smells that she found appetizing and never smells that would put her off her appetite. This helped to make sure that by the time I was done cooking she was ready to eat, and that flavor that I had perfected for her preferences (not mine) reinforced her desire to eat and keep eating.

What if I don’t know anything about food, eating, smells, or what-so-have-you? Well boys and girls, I have a fool proof method to begin figuring out what you like and don’t like in a recipe or a pre-made dish. Being able to identify what flavors, or smells you don’t like allows you omit these ingredients in your cooking and still be able to eat the foods that you love. Let’s use an example.

Usually, I cook a pot of chili at my speaking engagements. I had a woman who was having trouble eating, but didn’t understand why. She just kept saying everything tasted wrong. So I sat down with her and the chili and asked her to taste it. She said that she didn’t like it. There was something funny about it. So I asked her very simply to try an oyster cracker. She said that she didn’t mind the taste of it. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was one of the aromatic spices that I used inside of my chili recipe that she was having difficulty with. So I asked her to taste the chili again, but this time to pinch her nose. All of a sudden, she found the chili very tasty. Ah Ha! I thought… or possibly exclaimed out loud… I brought all of the ingredients in the chili recipe to her and asked her to smell every single ingredient so that we could find the offensive odor. As I suspected nothing bothered her, until she smelled the ground cumin. As soon as that scent hit her nostrils, she repulsed like it reached up and bit her. So, I advised her to omit cumin from her cooking, and she still eats my chili recipe to this day!

Plan of Action

This is not a unique circumstance. Often odors that are more pungent in nature can induce nausea to cancer fighters. This happens of course from a distance, and by the time a delicious meal arrives, cooked lovingly by a friend or family member, the nausea makes the person unable to eat. So I advise you to preemptively play the smell game. Grab a few herbs, spices, meals, or foods from your house and smell them. Make a tasting journal. Taste everything. Smell everything. Log its flavor, how it made you feel, did it make your nausous, did you like the smell or flavor, etc. By creating a log of these experiences you can better find and design meals that your loved ones can eat. This will of course empower you, and get more food into our cancer fighters. Now that you understand the relationship between taste and smell, you will be able to actively deduce what flavors or scents are causing loss of appetite, or a gain in appetite and double down on these resources.


About the author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is a 2x Gourmand World Cookbook Award Winning Chef. Author of Cooking for Chemo …and After; Cooking for Kids with Cancer; and Chef Ryan’s How-to-Cook Cookbook. He is also the founder of CookingForChemo.org

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