Five Flavors for Your Health

02 Oct 2002 --- Teacups and Dried Tea Leaves in Bamboo Container --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisIn traditional based systems of natural medicine, the taste of the foods or herbs you use have numerous effects on the body. When I first began studying Ayurveda and Chinese herbal medicine, the concept of taste was very fascinating to me; and I wanted to share this with you. It is a known fact that when you put food in your mouth, the sensation of taste is then relayed to the brain. This in turn helps to begin the digestive process and how your body will react. The tongue is the organ that allows this to happen. There are literally thousands of receptors called taste buds on the surface of the tongue. These receptors recognize the basic flavors of Sweet, Salty, Bitter, and Sour. These four tastes are located in specific parts of the tongue. The front provides the sweet taste, the sides near the front provide the sour taste, the sides further back provide the salty taste, and the back of the tongue or the root provides the bitter taste. In the West we usually only refer to the four flavors, but in the Chinese system there are five flavors (the extra taste being Pungent). The Ayurvedic system recognizes six flavors (the extra tastes include Pungent and Astringent). Let’s take a closer look at the flavors and how they apply to better health.

Let’s begin with our most favorite — “Sweet.” This flavor is attributed to the spleen, pancreas, and stomach. “Sweet” is considered to be tonifying and strengthening with cleansing properties. It is an energizer and a relaxer at the same time. Complex carbohydrates from whole grains are the center of most traditional diets, and they provide a nutritive sweet taste especially when chewed well. It is beneficial for the nerves and the brain. This flavor aids the spleen and stomach channels by enhancing digestion, improves mood, and is said to be appropriate for the liver since it soothes the excess liver emotions of anger and impatience. Of course, the sweet taste can be over-used by too much refined sugars or fruits without proper balance. Excess sweet can lead to heartburn, gas, and stomach disorders. Some beneficial foods would be honey, rice syrup, whole grains, and root vegetables (carrots, winter squash, and legumes).

“Salty” flavor is attributed to the kidneys and bladder. This flavor has a centering effect, moistens excess dryness, improves digestion, detoxifies the body, and has shown to soften hardened lumps and stiffness. It has been used for constipation, sore throat, and pyorrhea. It is associated with the water element in Chinese theory, which is attributed to kidney functions. It is said to fortify a weak heart mind and improve concentration. Salt helps to maintain proper fluid balance, and it nourishes the adrenal glands. Of course, we know that excess salt has negative effects on the body. Elevated blood pressure can result as well as water retention. The quality of salt is important. Be sure to use sea salt or use seaweed for your daily salt requirement.

“Sour” is attributed to the liver and gall bladder. The Sour flavor is most active in the liver. It counteracts the excess use of greasy foods and functions as a solvent by breaking fat and protein down. It helps to dissolve minerals and strengthens weak lungs. Sour is also an astringent in that it tightens tissues and firms them. Sour herbs and foods help diarrhea and can stop bleeding. Black and green tea is considered sour because they are astringent. Of course, lemons, limes, and vinegar are our predominant sour substances. Sour is very beneficial for eliminating excess mucus. Unripe fruits and foods like pickles and sauerkraut fall into this category.

“Bitter” is attributed to the heart and small intestines. The Bitter flavor is cooling, drying, detoxifying, and anti-inflammatory. It stimulates digestion and bile release from the liver, thus aiding in constipation. It helps protect us from bacteria and parasites and aids in cholesterol management. It is said to strengthen the heart, can lower fevers, and help eliminate mucus accumulations. Bitters have been used by many cultures, especially after a meal because they aid digestion. These consist of extracts of dandelion root, artichoke, gentian root, chamomile, and a variety of others. Bitter foods would include romaine lettuce, alfalfa, turnips, and mustard.

“Pungent or Spicy” is attributed to the lungs and large intestines. This flavor stimulates digestion, disperses mucus especially during a cold or flu, helps to bring the blood to the surface of the skin, and causes sweating. It has the ability to disperse stagnant blood, increases energy and aids the lungs by clearing mucus. Some of the foods and herbs used would include: Cayenne pepper, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, horseradish, onions, caraway, coriander, cumin, basil, oregano, and mints.

In the traditional systems mentioned above, they state it is important to get each flavor every day to maintain a healthy balance. Of course, each flavor has an excess quality if we overdue them. These are just some basic guidelines to help you pay more attention to what you are eating. When one suffers from a specific health condition, certain flavors can be beneficial to that condition. It is important that you do more in depth research if this approach is appealing to you. There are numerous sources for study. The following sources are two good choices and will give you more detail than this article:

  • Healing With Whole Food by Paul Pritchard
  • Food and Healing by Anna Marie Colbin.
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