Imagine food without any taste - no salt, no pungent, no sour...and so on. Flavoring makes food edible, but tastes also have certain physiological and emotional effects, which is why in the Ayurvedic paradigm it’s recommended to have all the tastes in each meal - especially the main one. Fortunately, awareness of the impact of tastes on health, especially in relation to the dearth of bitter in our diets, is growing. In this post, I share info about tastes from an Ayurvedic perspective, where astringent is considered a sixth taste.
Some tastes are better for certain kinds of people, or for when you’re in a certain state - too heated, emotionally or physically, for example, but everyone needs to routinely experience all tastes. Spices are a great way to inject some of the more difficult to get tastes, like astringent and bitter - and this is why they are used so much in South Asian cooking. Tastes also help with digestion - most cultures have a spice blend with aromatic, digestive-enhancing spices - and assimilation of food, and the demand for spices for flavor enhancement and health effects played a role in the colonization of lands where these spices originate.
Elements - earth + water
Qualities - heavy, cooling
Food components - carbohydrates (polysaccharides, pectins, simple sugars & complex starches), fats, and protein
Tissues most affected - all 7 tissues in the Ayurvedic framework (plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow, reproductive)
Let’s start with the sweet taste - most people have a sweet tooth, even if they think they don’t, because the sweet taste is in many foods, not just sweets. It’s also the first taste babies experience, whether or not they are breastfed, a taste that humans are innately drawn to and don’t need to cultivate. There are few toxic foods with the sweet taste found in nature; toxic plants are more likely to be of the other tastes, the ones people have less of in their diet. The sweet taste comes through most fruits, grains, fats (oils, nuts, seeds, avocados), proteins (legumes, animal meat), root vegetables (with obvious exceptions), and spices like cinnamon and licorice. Sweet foods of summer, generally eaten raw, are appropriately cooling, whereas the root vegetables of winter are cooked, making them warming.
Made of the earth and water elements, sweet is nutritive, energizing, grounding, and calming. It helps to build tissues and bulk in the body, calm the nervous system and mind, and impart feelings of love and compassion. It makes sense, then, that it would be the taste that dominates a baby’s experience as they build up their body and form bonds. Later on, too much of the sweet taste can create congestion in the body, which often manifests as phlegm, mucus, dampness, or excess weight, and mentally, as attachment or passivity.
Elements - earth + fire
Qualities - hot*, heavy, moist
Food components - salts
Tissues most affected - plasma, blood, muscle, and fat
Saltiness is found in natural salts, seaweeds, and foods like miso and many processed foods and snacks. The salty taste helps make food more palatable and helps stimulate digestion, stimulating the release of amylase in the mouth, which starts the digestion of carbohydrates, and the release of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which helps digest proteins. Salt also helps lubricate tissues and softens masses, and mentally, it can help relieve anxiety and sooth nervousness. Too much can create excess heat - high blood pressure, excess thirst, rashes, hyperacidity, water retention, edema etc. physically, or impatience, rigidity, criticism, anger, frustration in the mind realm.
*Natural mineral or rock salt is cooling and minimizes some of the problems associated with excess salt consumption.
Elements - water + fire
Qualities - heavy, moist, and cooling
Food components - organic acids
Tissues most affected - all except reproductive
Sour is found in most citrus fruits, yogurt, tomatoes, tamarind, many berries, cherries, pineapple, fermented foods, vinegar, and wine. The sour taste is sharp and stimulates digestion and circulation, moistens and helps to hold fluid in tissues, and sharpens the mind. In excess, it can dry out mucus membranes and cause some of the excess heat conditions mentioned above with excess salt.
Elements - air + space (also referred to as ether)
Qualities - light, cooling, drying
Food components - alkaloids, glycosides
Tissues affected - plasma, blood, fat, and reproductive
Bitterness manifests in dark leafy greens, graprefruits, olives, bittermelons, coffee and tea, and spices like fenugreek seed. Bitter stimulates release of digestive secretions and peristalsic action, lightens and detoxifies, clears heat and congestion, drains excess dampness, and cleans blood and liver. In doing so, it helps with excess weight, water retention, skin rashes, and burning sensations, and digestion, and contributes to mental clarity, insight, and detachment from worldly things. In excess it can contribute to bloating, depletion of vital energy (ojas) physically, and cynicism, depression, or isolation mentally.
Elements - fire + air
Qualities - hot, dry, light
Food components - volatile oils
Tissues most affected - blood and reproductive
The pungent flavor comes through foods like ginger, garlic, horseradish, black pepper, and cumin, stimulating digestion and metabolism, clearing the sinuses, clearing excess moisture, and promoting sweating and detoxification. Mentally, it can motivate or fire you up. In excess, it can dry out tissues or contribute to anger or aggression.
Elements - air + earth
Properties - dry, cooling, heavy
Food components - tannins
Tissues most affected - plasma, blood, muscle, and reproductive
Astringency is more of an effect in the mouth (and elsewhere) than a taste - it absorbs water, tightens tissues, and dries fat. Astringency is found in turmeric, unripe bananas, most raw vegetables, apples, pomegranates, lentils, beans, and legumes.
The effect felt in the mouth - the pull on the tongue and membranes - is what it does elsewhere in the body, helping to heal wounds, cleanse mucus membranes, absorb water, scrape fat, tone and tighten tissues, or resolve excess bleeding, sweating, diarrhea. In the mind, it promotes cohesiveness and stability. In excess, it can slow digestion, or contribute to bloating or constipation, heart problems, weight loss, or excess thirst, and mentally can cause contribute to fear, worry, nervousness, or depression.
Most foods have more than one taste, but one dominates, and some people are going to need more of certain tastes than other people because of their naturally high levels of the opposite elements. For example, someone who is naturally high in air or space elements will need more of the sweet taste in terms of grains, etc. (not cane sugar), and be cautious about having excess bitter (e.g. coffee, dark chocolate) because bitter is made of air and space elements. Someone naturally high in the earth or water elements needs to be me more cautious with consumption of starchy foods that constitute the sweet taste - as well as salty foods, because excess can cause water retention - and have a higher intake of lighter, air & space element foods such as leafy greens.
People can get also gain qualities that taste imparts through other means; it’s often said that craving for sweet or salty foods may be partially caused by a deficiency in calming experiences e.g. time in nature, contemplative practices. The Sanskrit word for taste, rasa, also refers to enthusiasm, juiciness, and essence, in keeping with the significance in Ayurveda of tasting and processing food, emotions, and life in general, for wellness. In terms of food tastes, the sweet and salty tastes help calm the nervous system, and perhaps that's why many people in hyper-stimulated, over-scheduled societies crave them.
To find out your own elemental mix and understand what tastes and foods will generally support you, it's best to see an Ayurvedic practitioner, but you can get a an idea by doing a few dosha quizzes. There are some good ones here and here - just bear in mind there's an elemental constitution you were born with (which you can't change), but sometimes this is masked due to a current imbalance.
Lad, V. (2002) Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda. The Ayurvedic Press, Albuquerque, NM.