Understanding the Eating Experience

The 5 Senses

Understanding the 5 senses and the role each of them play in the eating experience is an incredibly important aspect of cooking. The 5 senses are even more important to understand when we are Cooking for Chemo.

The very first idea you must understand when cooking for someone undergoing chemotherapy treatments is how flavors and the eating experience are perceived. In my experience, I have learned that it is not the flavors of the foods that cancer patients eat but their perception of these foods that have changed. Chemotherapy plays havoc on the entirety of your body, not just the cancer cells it is targeting. This is why your hair falls out, your skin gets sores, and your nails become brittle. The same effects can also be felt on all of your sensory organs as well.

Perception of Food

Using our imagination, let’s discuss a simple example that will illustrate what role the 5 senses take during the eating experience. Imagine if you will, that a grilled chicken breast covered in a sweet tangy barbecue sauce is your favorite dish of all time. Now, imagine it is being served to you and you are extremely hungry. The smell, sight, and taste of that grilled chicken will be one of the greatest pleasures of your life.

Now imagine that same situation, but you had far too many cocktails last night and are dizzy, nauseous, and feel like you are going to throw up. What is the smell and sight of that chicken going to do to you in that situation? Is that grilled chicken going to be one of the greatest pleasures of your life? Or will it be one of your greatest displeasures? The answer is very simple. The smell of that chicken breast alone will make your nausea even worse than it was before. Any hunger that you had will dissipate and you will probably want to go right back to bed.

Notice how in our simple example the grilled chicken breast has not changed, but our perception of it has. This is what is happening to everyone undergoing chemotherapy treatments. It is even more true if you are on extremely high doses of chemotherapy. So, from this point forward, always keep this idea in mind.

It is not what food tastes like to the caregiver. It is what food tastes like to the cancer patient.”

In this lesson, I am going to elaborate on this idea and help you to understand the relationship between the perception of food and its resulting flavor. I am also going to teach you how you perceive food with all 5 senses.

Defining Your 5 Senses

By conventional definition, you possess, or should possess, 5 senses.

Your 5 Senses are: taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound.

These conventional 5 senses are how you perceive the world. But during the eating experience, there is a sixth sense that comes into play. It is called memory association. No. The sixth sense is not a super power, but it gives your present experiences historical and learned context. Let’s discuss each sense and how it comes into play during the eating experience.


Everyone knows taste and food go together. As a matter of fact, we often ask each other while eating, “how does it taste?” Your sense of taste is a sense that only operates by physical contact with the item that is being perceived. Your tongue is where your sense of taste is located and food and liquids have to physically touch the taste receptors located on your tongue to be perceived. Your sense of taste is limited to only 5 experiences. They are:

  • salty
  • savory
  • spicy
  • sour
  • sweet

We will discuss these 5 flavors, in detail, in the next article .

During chemotherapy treatments, each one of these flavors can change in intensity and sensitivity. This causes a misalignment of understanding what foods are supposed to taste like and what they currently taste like. Instead of a cheeseburger tasting like a cheeseburger to you, it could in theory, taste like eggplant parmesan. This later part, has more to do with memory association coming into play, which you will learn about in just a moment.


Your sense of smell is the first of your senses that allows you to perceive an object or item from a distance. Virtually all objects in the world have some sort of smell. Contrary to popular belief, your sense of smell is actually your most complex and advanced sense. You can perceive over a trillion unique scents and distinguish them individually from each other. Interestingly, your sense of smell is also your strongest sense tied to memory.

As a result, the whiff of something like cologne can immediately draw up memories of your grandfather. If you really close your eyes and concentrate, you will notice that as you think of these memories, you can actually re-smell the events in your mind as if they were happening right now.

For example, let us pretend that you have a pot roast simmering in a slow cooker. Your house is filled with the smell of pot roast. As a result, it smells so good you can taste it, right? Wrong. You don’t actually taste the pot roast just from smelling it. But, you are using your sense of smell to experience the flavor for you. The most complicated flavors that you will experience are generated not by your tongue’s interaction with your food, but with your nose’s interaction with your food. (Aromatics)

Another thing you absolutely must know is the concept of pungency. Pungency is simply defined as how powerful the smell of an item is. For example, roses have a light smell and are not very pungent. But, old fish is very pungent and will have an off-putting smell. Some would say that smell is stinky. To differentiate, pungency describes the quantity or concentration of odors. Where as stinky describes the quality of odors. Understanding the variations in the strength of pungency is something you will learn to develop as time goes on and as you become more proficient with your cooking techniques. Smell is also strongly tied to the side effect nausea and we will discuss this in greater detail in a later article.


Your sense of touch is another sense where proximity and physical contact are required. Your sense of touch exists inside of the skin cells that cover your body. When you physically press your skin against another object, you perceive that it is there. Your sense of touch is also connected to your perception of pain. With chemotherapy treatments, this often manifests itself in the form of mouth sores. Your sense of touch manifests itself in the perception of food textures.

Food texture is extremely important to consider for 3 reasons:

1. By varying the texture, you can completely change the character of the dish.

2. Many people have texture aversions, not necessarily taste aversions.

3. Mouth sores create sensitivity to abrasive textures, spicy foods, and to foods that are hot in temperature.

A perfect example of a texture aversion is with mushrooms. Most people love the flavor and smell of sautéed mushrooms. But because of their slimy texture, many people avoid them in entirety. The solution to this is simply to finely dice the mushrooms so that the flavor is still there but the texture has changed into something that more people will find palatable.

Texture defines the quality of dishes and helps the person eating the dish decide their emotional response to the dish based solely on the texture. Chicken and dumplings, like most comfort foods, has a very soft and soupy texture from hours of slow cooking. On the other hand, uncooked raw vegetables have a crisp and firm texture. This crisp texture imparts a feeling of freshness and a pleasing bite that is especially great for snacking.

When cooking, you want to always take texture into consideration when you are creating a dish. This helps influence the emotional state of the person who is eating the food. You want to use texture to tell your diner how to feel about your dish. This is how texture ties into memory association.


This is your second sense that allows you to perceive objects from a distance. Light bounces off of an object, enters your eyes, and you then perceive the object. Even though humans are eye dominant, we can only perceive a few million actual colors. But because we are sight dominant, we use sight to distinguish good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and even eating choices. Why do you think there are pictures on restaurant menus? Sight comes into play in the chemotherapy experience by helping to build or diminish an appetite from a distance.

Because humans are extremely visually influenced, a dish can be cast aside simply by looking at the dish. Look at any culinary competition on the television. The judges will always comment on the visual appeal and presentation of the dishes that they have been presented before they even take a bite. It is important to use this knowledge that sight influences a persons eating habits before we begin cooking so that we can cater everything we cook to the preferences of those we are cooking for.

Using lots of fresh vegetables in our cooking is not only a great source of nutrition, but is also wonderful to create visually appealing dishes. One of my favorite dishes is called, cacio e pepe. This dish is very simple in the fact that it is spaghetti noodles, pecorino romano, and black pepper. It tastes wonderful, but is visually very unappealing. On the other hand, a summer salad with cucumber, grape tomatoes, red onions, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese creates a visually striking dish. Once you see a picture of it, you are immediately hungry and want to eat that salad.

By using bright and varied color inside of our dishes, it allows us to create appetizing dishes before they even hit the table.


Your sense of hearing is your third sense that allows you to process information from a distance. Very simply, vibrations in the air actuate the mechanical parts of your inner ear and transmit the sound to your brain in a way that you can interpret. Sound is how we process conversations, music, and ambient noises. Sound is also how we process certain textures like “crunchy.”

Sound comes into play in 3 different, but 3 very important ways:

1. There is, of course, the auditory experience of the actual eating experience.

For example, you slurp soup, you crunch chips, and you hear the clinking and clanking of tableware to indicate that people are eating.

2. By using our sense of sound during the actual cooking process, we can begin to attune our senses to perceive the condition of the doneness of food, with out visually seeing the cooking process.

For example, water makes a boiling sound, sautéing makes a crackling popping sound, grilling makes a searing sound. When you hear the water boiling, you know that it’s time to drop the noodles into the water to cook them. When properly sautéing something, you can train your ear to listen to the sizzling sound of the water escaping the food product to know if the food has been sufficiently sautéed and whether it is time to flip it. The searing sound of steak on a grill is actually the sound of moisture escaping from the meat. The louder the searing sound is, the faster it is occurring, and therefore you can tell how hot your grill is. Once you stop hearing sizzling or searing sounds, you know that the moisture has been completely cooked out of your food, which is not always ideal.

But by learning the sounds inside of the cooking process, you may observe new information with a far underutilized sense.

3. When you hear the sounds of cooking, you can begin to become hungry.

You don’t have to smell, see, or taste food to know that there is food cooking. The rhythmic clanging of a sauté pan and the sizzling sound of sautéing mushrooms is enough to tell someone that there is something delicious happening in the kitchen. This becomes an association when these actions are followed by the ingestion of food.

When I was my mothers caregiver, I always did 2 things before I would feed her:

1. I would play old crooner music, so that she would know that I was cooking.

2. I would always begin by sautéing something delicious in a sauté pan.

Over time, she began to associate the sounds of cooking and old crooner music with delicious food and learned that it was an appropriate time to be hungry. Now, we will learn more about memory association and how it plays into the 5 senses.

Memory Association

These first 5 senses are constantly feeding information into your brain. This information is recorded live and then your brain passes this information through a series of conditional filters, one of which compares present situations to past situations. These past situations, or “memories,” find similar patterns to give a present day situation learned historical context and these contexts become associations. I am sure this sounds a little complicated, but you do this naturally and without having to consciously think about it all the time.

Memory association helps you to make decisions quicker by prejudicing your decisions towards familiar and successful choices in the past. Think of it like this, “if X worked in the past, X should work today.” As a chef, you must break yourself out of certain eating and association cycles so that you may grow in experience and understanding of different cuisines and cultures. Every time you learn something new or taste a new food that information is incorporated into your database and helps you to make better, more informed, and new decisions.

Memory association comes into play during the eating experience by helping you decide what foods and drinks you would like to ingest. This becomes problematic during cancer treatment because your input data from your senses does not match the historical data to which it has been referenced. This can cause frustration, disinterest in food, and loss of appetite.

Now that you understand the basics of how each sense functions, we can dive into flavor, the eating experience, and how chemo treatments change your eating experience.

Food For Thought

Think about what you just learned and how it applies to your situation. Ask yourself these questions.

1. What sense(s) did you not realize were part of the eating experience?

2. Which sense(s) do you rely on the most?

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