Today is National Sweetest Day, and for most, that means celebrating with their favorite sugary delight, and I am not trying to deter you from doing so, however why not take it one step further to explore the deeper purpose of sweetness in regards to our health? Much of the wisdom of nutrition rests on the tip of your tongue, all kidding aside! From the perspective of Ayurvedic medicine, our sense of taste is a guide map that leads us towards proper nutrition. Since the beginning of our existence, humans have relied largely upon taste to discover healthy food choices in nature and avoid food poisoning. Our taste buds do much more than simply identify tastes; they unlock the nutritive truth of the foods we eat every day and provide the initial spark of energy to ignite the entire digestive process.
Food speaks to us using taste as a messenger. A juicy orange for example may call out to us with a refreshing delight, while the flaming chili pepper sends out a warning call to all mammals who get close enough. As we tune into the tastes naturally desired by the body, we tap into the body’s innate wisdom regarding food and nutrition.
Ayurveda identifies six Tastes by which all foods can be categorized: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent. While the first four tastes are probably recognizable, the last two may not seem as familiar to some of us. Pungent taste is hot and spicy as found in a chili pepper, while Astringent taste is dry and light as found in popcorn, one of my personal favorites.
Each taste nourishes our mind, body, senses, and spirit in its own unique way. From a modern nutritional perspective, the six Tastes satisfy each of the major dietary building blocks. Sweet foods, for example, are rich in fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and water, whereas Bitter and Astringent foods are high in vitamins and minerals.
The brain sends the body signals when it requires energy in the form of food. By incorporating something from each category into every meal, we ensure that these signals are adequately met, thus avoiding food cravings or the over-eating.
Including the six tastes in each meal is not as difficult as it may seem. Adding a squeeze of lemon to cooked dishes for example, can quickly and efficiently satisfy the Sour taste. Adding a side salad as well could fulfill the Bitter and Astringent tastes.
The body naturally desires foods with tastes that balance it and deters those that could be more irritating. In this sense, we are perfectly adapted, and we have coevolved with plants to form a synchronistic relationship. If we can find a way to get ourselves back in communication with our bodies and learn to follow our natural inclinations once again, we will be led to the proper foods. According to “Eat Taste Heal”, an Ayurvedic cookbook for modern living, “Vata” individuals, for example, as we refer to them in Ayurvedic medicine, are naturally drawn to moist, grounding foods, while “Kapha” individuals prefer light and drying foods. A “Pitta” individual will desire cooling foods and spices such as dark leafy greens, camphor, and fennel which are high in Bitter and Astringent tastes, while requiring a smaller quantity of the Pungent taste(1).
Balancing the Body Through Taste
The Six Tastes
Sweet taste comes from the union of Water and Earth elements. It is considered heavy, moist, and cooling by nature in Ayurveda. Herbs that are typically classified as sweet include American ginseng, licorice root, (both of which are known to improve circulation), Astragalus, an immunomodulator, Ashwagandha, an adaptogen, as well as Aloe, Slippery Elm, Marshmallow root, and Comfrey Leaf (all demulcent, which means they are studied for their ability to relieve inflammation and irritation of skin and mucous membranes). What we all know and many of us love and crave as sugary deserts are most commonly associated with this taste. Sweet taste is also found in milk and milk products such as butter, ghee, and cream, as well as most grains, legumes, sweet fruits (such as bananas and mangoes), and a variety of vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets for example).
Sweet taste has a natural tendency to increase moisture and weight in the body. Due to this characteristic, it is excellent for building the body’s vital tissues of plasma, blood, fat, muscles, bones, marrow, and reproductive fluids(1). The sweet taste in our foods may also increase saliva, soothe mucous membranes, relieve thirst, and display nourishing effects on the skin, hair, and is even known to soothe a tired voice after a long night of karaoke or talking loudly with friends and family over dinner.
The Sour Taste is composed of Earth and Fire and is known to be hot, light, and moist. It is commonly found in herbs such as Bayberry, Elder and Elderberry, Hawthorne and Hawthorne berry, Rose hips, and Uva Ursi. Some berries, Citrus fruits, sour milk products (like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream), as well as fermented and cultured foods would be included in the sour category. Used in moderation, Sour taste can help to stimulate digestion, improve circulation and elimination, energize the body, strengthen the heart, relieve thirst, maintain acidity if needed, heighten the senses, and help to process minerals such as iron from other foods we eat. It is known to nourish all vital tissues except the reproductive tissues(1).
Salty taste is composed of Fire and Water and is hot, heavy, and moist by nature. Nettle, Horsetail, and Oatstraw are a few well-known salty herbs, studied for strengthening bone, teeth, skin, hair and nails(1). The salty taste is also found in any salt (such as sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, Hiwa Kai salt from Hawaii, and other kinds of rock salt), sea vegetables (like seaweed, spirulina, and bull kelp), and foods to which large amounts of salt are added. Due to its drying quality in the mouth, it may seem counterintuitive to think of Salty taste as moistening, however the element of Water in its composition, relates to its electrolyte balance or water retaining quality. Sweet taste stimulates the greatest water retention and weight gain in the body, Salty taste will have similar effects when used in excess by any of the Doshas. As long as consumption is respected with moderation, saltiness can improve digestion and flavor of our meal, lubricate tissues, bring nourishment to mucous membranes, maintain mineral balance, aid in the elimination of wastes, as well as calm the nervous system. With a tendency to attract water, it also has the potential to improve radiance of the skin and promote overall growth in the body(1).
Pungent taste derives from the elements of Fire and Air and as such is mostly described as hot, dry, and light. It is known as the hottest of all the Tastes. Pungent flavor is found in certain vegetables (such as chili peppers, garlic, and onions), as well as in many spices and herbs. Arnica for example is known to aid circulation. Black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, clove, ginger, fennel, turmeric are pungent herbs which may alleviate inflammation and improve digestion. Echinacea, a potent immune booster, is also considered to be pungent. Kava Kava, an anxiety reliever, nervine and pain tonic is one pungent medicinal herb that will numb your mouth when you drink the tea. It is for this reason that Dragon Herbarium carries both the bulk organic herb of Kava Kava powder, cut and sifted, as well as Kava Kava veggie caps conveniently packaged for our community. Lavender is another pungent herb, pungent yet properly relaxing to the nervous system. Oregano, thyme, and rosemary are considered pungent as well, all of which have been studied for their antimicrobial effects. In small amounts, Pungent taste may support digestion, cleanse the sinuses, promote sweating and other forms of natural detoxification, enhance circulation and metabolism, and may even help to relieve sore muscles after a long exhausting day(1).
Bitter taste is composed of Air and Ether and is typically light, cooling, and dry by description. It is found in many herbs such as green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, and green cabbage), other vegetables (including zucchini and eggplant), herbs and spices (like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root), coffee, tea, and certain fruits (such as grapefruits, olives, and bitter melon). While Bitter taste is often not appealing alone, it stimulates the appetite and helps bring out the flavor of the other tastes. Bitter taste is a powerful detoxifying agent, and has antibiotic, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic qualities. It is also helpful in reducing weight, water retention, skin rashes, fever, burning sensations and nausea(1).
Astringent taste results from the combination of Air and Earth and is dry, cooling, and heavy by nature. It is the least common of all the 6 Tastes and can be found in legumes (such as beans and lentils), fruits (including cranberries, pomegranates, pears, and dried fruit), vegetables (such as, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus and turnip), grains (such as rye, buckwheat, and quinoa), spices and herbs (including turmeric and marjoram), coffee, and tea. Astringent taste is not as cold as Bitter taste but has a greater cooling effect on the body than Sweet taste(1).
Astringent taste is classified more in relation to its effect on the tongue than its actual taste. It creates a puckering sensation in the mouth (like cranberries) or a dry, chalky feeling (such as many beans). Foods like broccoli or cauliflower have a mildly astringent taste that is less detectable. Drier foods such as crackers and chips, most raw vegetables, and the skins of fruits also tend to have astringent qualities(1).
Sweet & Healthy Recipe
For those of us who are craving something a little sweet, but would like to remain mindful of their body's gentle elemental balance, I highly recommend this no-bake pumpkin pie recipe I found from JoyFoodSunshine.com!
Sweet Suggestions for a Sweeter World
Encourage everyone to be generous even in the smallest ways. Small tokens improve the lives of those around us who are suffering or going without. Give a gift to someone who needs a reminder of the sweetness in the world. <3
The Six Tastes: Our Guide Map to Optimal Nutrition. (2014). Five Elements Press. http://www.eattasteheal.com/eth_6tastes.htm