The Six Tastes
There is a very specific action created in the body by the tastes we perceive. Here’s an ancient take on the effect of the Six Tastes:
There are five elements in the universe- space, air, water, fire, and earth. Taste has a direct effect on our body constitution, or on our doshas as we call it in Ayurveda. Our doshas determine the predominant elements that are present in our bodies and how they affect us, from how our genetic make up expresses itself, to why we crave what we crave, to our personalities and mood swings, to why we go gray early. Everything is connected and everything is essentially attributed to our doshas and to the degree that the elements that show up in our bodies. Balance is most definitely the all-encompassing idea here in achieving health and wellness. This is all a very big idea, so for now we will just focus on taste.
Each food substance we consume has a specific taste, and a very specific action on the body. When we take in these tastes in proper amounts, both individually and collectively, they help bring and restore balance to our systems. Nature actually arranged our taste buds into six groups that correspond to the six tastes recognized by Ayurveda: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Brilliant. Each has its own combination of the elements, and each sends a specific message to our bodies that not only directly influences our digestion, but also speaks to the body’s cells, tissues, organs, and systems. It is not the actual “taste” of something that is important here, however, as much as is what the taste produces in the body that is important, and what the secondary tastes produce in the body as well. This is called Vipaka. Furthermore, emotions create specific tastes in the body, just as eating a certain taste will create certain emotions.
Understanding the effects each taste has on the mind/body is important when we look at our diets because herbs and spices can be used to individualize foods for each person, making each meal a more effective tool in the prevention and treatment of imbalances and disease. Or dis-ease as I like to call it.
Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food. -Hippocrates
All six tastes are required at each meal to signal the body that it has been properly nourished and that it is fully satisfied… doing this helps maintain our individual natural balance.
Kinda cool, huh? Let’s look at the details.
Earth + Water = Sweet
Sweet taste, when properly incorporated, has the capacity to increase the vital essence of life, give strength, and promote longevity. Sweet is comforting, filling, relieves hunger, soothes thirst, produces a feeling of safety, and is nourishing to the mind and body. Sweet taste is present in foods like parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, grains and cooked oats, wheat, brown rice, milk (except soy), fish and meat, eggs, dates, figs, apricots, pears, prunes, maple syrup, and yes, sugar. Sweet herbs and spices include fennel, nutmeg, mint, bala, ashwagandha, shatavari, gokshura, cardamom, vidari, basil, and cinnamon. The qualities of sweet foods are usually oily, cooling, and heavy.
Sweet promotes the growth of all seven body tissues, or dhatus, in the body: plasma, blood, muscles, fat, bones, marrow and nerve tissue, and reproductive fluids. A proper-balanced-use of sweet tastes encourages the senses, increases body weight and fluids, supports strength of the tissues, improves complexion, promotes healthy skin and hair, and tones for a good voice. It can relieve thirsty burning sensations and be extremely invigorating to enhance stability. The sense organs will be nourished and therefore a feeling of happiness naturally follows.
Can too much of a good thing make it too good to be true?
Kinda. The downside of overly sweet consumption? (And we’re talking sweet taste, not highly refined sweets in general which we all know shoot us straight downhill.) Because sweet foods are cold, damp and heavy, overindulgence can also cause several disorders, like throwing off your natural body constitution’s balance, entice colds, coughs, congestion, heaviness, constipation, loss of appetite, laziness, complacency, obesity, lymphatic congestion, tumors, edema, diabetes, and even fibrocystic changes in the breasts. Too much sweet lowers the digestive fire (decreasing Pitta,) causes complacendy (increases Kapha,) and cause feelings of anxiety (stimulates Vata.)
Yikes. Too much of ANYTHING is not a good thing.
Remember: The key is balance.
Earth + Fire = Sour
Sour tastes are refreshing, stimulate the mind, enhance the elimination of wastes, and increase saliva and digestive juices. Sour can be found in foods like citrus fruits, lemons, sour apples, strawberries, green grapes, plums, oranges, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, sour cream, green grapes, and fermented goodies like vinegar, wine, cheese, yogurt, soy sauce, pickles, and chutneys. Sour herbs and spices include pomegranate, amalaki, and haritaki. The sours are liquid, light, heating, and oily in nature.
When used properly, they can be refreshing, stimulate the appetite, improve digestion and absorption of nutrients, regulate peristalsis, energize the body, increase vitality, strengthen the hearth, enlighten the mind, nourish and build up all of the tissues (except reproductive tissues), be grounding, calm anxiety, and be quite the delicious addition to enhance flavors. (good for Vata)
As expected, over use of the sours can have some “sour” effects. The warm and damp effect of sours can cause excessive thirst, sensitive teeth, aggravated arthritis, and an overheating of the digestive system causing hyperacidity, heartburn, acid indigestion, and ulcers. Because of its fermenting action, the overuse of sour may be toxic to blood flow and cause conditions like dermatitis, acne, eczema, boils, and psoriasis, and its hot qualities may lead to an overly acidic pH environment in the body causing burning in the throat, chest, heart, bladder, and urethra. After over consuming sour foods, it is said that they increase the desire for more, whether it be more food or the general acquisition of things. A tendency to over evaluate can lead to envy, jealousy, or a deprecation of things, sometimes referred to as “the sour grapes” syndrome. The doshas will be thrown off; if jealousy becomes anger or resentment, Pitta will aggravate; if envy of another’s success makes us greedy for more, Kapha will increase; and envy may reduce Vata by focusing the mind towards consistent action.
The key is balance.
Water + Fire = Salty
Salt is heating, heavy, and oily. Examples include sea salt, rock salt, kelp, celery, smoked meats, Marmite, yeast extract, anchovies, olives, salted nuts, cheese, pickles, and of course fast food. Salty herbs and spices are mostly seeds like celery, cumin, ajwain, dill, and coriander.
Salt has the interesting ability to enhance all of the flavors of food while stimulating our appetites at the same time. Salt’s water element makes it a laxative, and its fire element lessens colon spasms and pain; used in moderation, it promotes growth, maintains the cell’s electrolyte-water balance, stimulates salivation, improves the flavor of the food it is paired with, and helps with the digestion, absorption, and elimination of wastes. It relieves Vata too, meaning it has a grounding effect, calms anxiety, and has superb hydrating qualities. Because salt has a hydroscopic action, it helps the body retain fluids, which can in turn loosen dense materials that can clog the body and simultaneously aid in their elimination.
Sounds good to me.
The salty side? Too much salt in your diet makes the blood thick, weakens the muscles, causes hypertension, hyperacidity, causes dry wrinkly skin, induces water retention, ulcers, skin eruptions, and may even cause fainting and patchy baldness. Overuse of salt causes an overall depleting effect and premature aging. Its heavy, damp, and warming properties can open up blocked channels and increase the mind’s desire for intensity, cause distractions, and make the mind weak. (Kapha can be weakened and Pitta can be aggravated.)
The key is balance.
Fire + Air = Pungent
Pungent taste is that zing you get from hot peppers like cayenne, chili, and black, raw onions, radishes, leeks, watercress, horseradish, garlic, mustard and mustard greens, ginger, alcohol, coffee, and if you’ve ever walked into a room after someone opened a durian fruit, that smell. Pungent herbs and spices are those of ginger, black pepper, basil, caraway, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, peppermint, saffron, guggulu, fennel, turmeric, and chitrak. It is light, drying, and heating in nature.
Pungent additions to your meals improve digestion and absorption, clean the mouth, strengthen circulation, clear the body’s channels, break up clots, eliminate waste products, and flush secretions like milk, mucus, semen, and fat. Pungent herbs kill germs, bacteria, and parasites, and clear the sinuses by stimulating nasal secretions and teary eyes. Pungency brings clarity of perception and is associated with the tendency to excitement, stimulation, intensity, and extroversion.
Who doesn’t like a clean internal environment and a clear stimulated mind?
Well, it depends on how much. Too much? Not good. Overstimulation and dispersal of energy, sexual debility from affected sperm and ova (doesn’t just nuke bad things..if used in extreme excess, pungency can kill good stuff too) and lowered fertility, induced burning, choking, fatigue, heat, thirst, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, asthma, skin conditions, and aggravated Pitta and Vata doshas.
The key is balance.
Bitter is the taste most lacking in the Standard American Diet. (how SAD!)
Air + Space = Bitter
Bitter is considered the best of all of the six tastes because bitter tasting foods in small amounts are said to return all tastes to normal and decrease food cravings, according to The Ayurveda Bible. The ever extinct bitter taste is brought to you in part by foods like aloe vera, rhubarb, radicchio, dandelion coffee and greens, coffee, tea, bitter melons, dark chocolate and the herbs and spices yellow dock, fenugreek, turmeric root, dandelion root, burdock, guduchi, bringaraj, neem, andrographis, coriander, guggulu, bhumiamalaki, and sandalwood. It’s properties are cool, light, and dry. (increases Vata dosha and decreases Pitta and Kapha.)
Bitter tastes increase the appetite, improve digestion, detox our systems, stimulate the liver to remove toxins, reduce inflammation, and reduce weight. Bitter is an antotoxic, kills germs, relieves burning, itching, fainting, helps with skin disorders, reduces fevers, and creates firmness of the skin and muscles. In small doses it can relieve intestinal gas and is also a digestive tonic. Because it is drying to the system, it causes a reduction in fat, bone marrow, urine, and feces and therefore eliminates excess water from the body. Spiritually, bitter herbs are used in practices to increase perception and the awareness of how things really are.
Over use…once again… not good. Too much bitter depletes plasma, blood, muscles, fat, bone marrow, and semen. It causes excessive dryness in the system, sexual debility, emanciation, weariness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and dehydration. Think too much coffee and that jittery dehydrated feeling that accompanies. Excess bitter reduces the digestive fire and has a depleting effect on the body and the mind; it is associated with dissatisfaction and can increase insecurity and anxiety because it stimulates the desire to change. “Swallowing a bitter pill” means to dispel delusions and face reality, but this is not always easy when your natural rhythms are thrown off because of an improper diet.
The key, therefore, is balance.
Air + Earth = Astringent
Think of astringent as that feeling left on your palate after you’ve eaten an unripe banana or sipped on a dry red wine. Astringent taste is found in pomegranates, cranberries, chickpeas, beans and green beans, yellow split peas, okra, Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, buckwheat, alfalfa sprouts, apples, honey, pears, and cabbage family veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and of course, cabbage. Astringent herbs and spices include goldenseal, turmeric, lotus seed, arjuna, alum, haritaki, rose, musta, jasmine, ashoka, guggulu, and bibhitaki. It has cooling, heavy, and dry qualities and it produces somewhat of a choking feeling in the throat or a drying of saliva in the mouth, kinda like a puckering sensation.
Astringent helps tone, constrict, and cool all parts of the body (especially for overactive Pitta), promote clotting, helps reduce and stop bleeding, heals ulcers and wounds, tone the mucous membranes, reduce mucus, and protect the gut from things like irritation, inflammation, infections, gastritis, ulceration, and diarrhea. It also helps with excessive sweat and saliva, and helps eliminate the accumulated toxins in the body. On a mental and emotional note, astringent’s cooling and clearing effects are good for feelings of overexcitement. (Pitta and Kapha)
In excess, Astringent causes dryness in the mouth, difficulty in speech, constipation, abdominal disentation, heart spasms, stagnation of circulation, it can affect sex drive and lead to depletion of sperm, and it can give rise to severe Vata disorders like Bell’s palsy, stroke paralysis, and emanciation. Because excess astringent can cause excess dryness, an accumulation of toxins can occur, as well as introversion, insecurity, anxiety, and fear.
The key is balance.
Everything has a good, a bad, and an ugly side. Good when used properly, bad when used poorly, ugly when used in excess. Balance is the key to living, well, a balanced life… and we are nourished not only by what we taste, but also by what we see, smell, feel, and touch.
Be kind to yourself, and to your senses!
A sprinkle here, a dash there, a pinch in this, a dabble in that, and voila. You’re eating a balanced tasty meal, your body feels satisfied, you’re not overeating, and you’re feeling great. (We are talking balancing tastes, not balancing carbs to proteins to veggies… a whole other cup of tea to be discussed later.)
Easy, breezy, lemon squeezy.
If you know your dosha:
- Sweet, Sour, and Salty increase Kapha and decrease Vata
- Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent decrease Kapha and increase Vata
- Sweet, Bitter, and Astringent decrease Pitta
- Pungent, Sour, and Salty increase Pitta
Questions? Please ask!
All the best for your health.
*Sources: The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, The Ayurveda Bible