Chemotherapy comes with some nasty side effects, including weakness, nausea, hair loss and “chemo brain.” But one of the most frustrating is dysgeusia, a side effect which causes food to taste bland, bitter, metallic or simply off, meaning patients can’t lean on their favorite comfort foods when things get rough. But Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas at NPR reports that one brewery in the Czech Republic has created a beer with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo in mind, a non-alcoholic tipple full of vitamins and minerals with a flavor profile designed to overcome dysgeusia.
Zahradnicek-Haas reports that messed-up taste buds don’t only mean cancer patients miss out on treats. Chemo patients sometimes don’t want to eat anything at all, meaning they don’t get the nutrition they need during treatment. That’s something Jana Drexlerova, CEO of Prague-based breast cancer advocacy group Mamma Help, experienced firsthand when she underwent treatment in 2011. During her chemo she suffered from painful mouth lesions, making it difficult to eat. “After chemotherapy, everything tasted like sand,” she tells Zahradnicek-Haas. “When I finally got my appetite back, all I could eat was cold tomato soup, and even that was flavorless.”
Drexlerova and Tereza Sverakova, also a breast cancer survivor, decided producing a palatable and nutritious beer for those undergoing treatment would be a great project. “Doctors often recommended drinking beer, in moderation, to get some nutrition and vitamins,” Sverakova, who works at ad firm Y&R, tells Cara Anderson at AdWeek. (We're guessing those are Czech doctors.) “It really does help, but the taste is just so bitter! So, we thought it would be great to develop beer specifically for women undergoing chemo–beer that has all the vitamins and nutrients, but has no alcohol and is made sweeter to kill the bitterness. A beer that would help counter this side effect of chemo and promote Mamma HELP at the same time. We approached nine breweries, but just one said yes: Zatec. It took them half a year to develop the beer. Those who tasted Mamma Beer have found it to be great. That’s the biggest reward.”
Ironically, Zatec Brewery, forty miles outside Prague, is located in the hops capital of the world. Hops are the flowers which impart beer with most of its aroma and bitterness. Mamma Beer, however, is brewed to be much less bitter than normal beer, since everything tastes overly bitter for many women with dysgeusia, and it is cut with apple juice to make it sweeter. Like most beer, it is naturally full of vitamin B and potassium.
So far, the limited-edition beer has been distributed to oncology wards and pharmacies in the Czech Republic and has been served at several beer and food shows. The hope is to eventually get the beer on grocery store shelves in the country.
Mamma Help isn’t the only organization trying to help chemo patients find palatable food, reports Zahradnicek-Haas. Former oncology nurse and colon cancer survivor Robert Greene started Amsterdam-based HungerNDThirst Foundation to develop food products to help cancer patients overcome chemo mouth. Finding that medical practitioners and food producers just didn’t understand the problem, he developed a cookie that mimics the metallic taste produced by chemotherapy. They understood after taking a bite. Now he’s working with food conglomerate Danone to develop new products for cancer patients. Other companies are also working on new chemo-friendly recipes and meals.
Though one American has brought a few bottles of Mamma Beer into the U.S., the brew is likely to be a Czech-only phenomenon, where the average person consumes 36 gallons of beer per year and people still repeat an old proverb: Beer is Medicine.