One of the fundamental principles of Ayurvedic nutrition is taste. Ayurveda states that there are 6 tastes: bitter, pungent, salty, sweet, sour and astringent and that certain tastes are better for different people depending on their dosha (natural constitution) or doshic imbalances (current state).
Ayurveda believes that all things are made from the five elements found in nature - ether, air, fire, water and earth, and that each taste is composed of a combination of two of these elements.
- Bitter ether + air
- Pungent air + fire
- Salty fire + water
- Sweet water + earth
- Sour earth + fire
- Astringent earth + air
Looking at the tastes like this makes it pretty easy to see what doshas will be increased by what taste. What is more difficult is determining what taste certain foods have. A cake of course is sweet, and coffee is bitter, but how would you classify rice? And what exactly is astringent anyway?
Bitter ether + air
reduces Pitta and kapha
Coffee, tea and dark chocolate are probably the first things that come to mind when you think of bitter tastes. Apart from coffee and tea it is not a large part of most peoples diets. Although a lot of herbs are bitter in taste they are not often found in supermarkets or included all in our day to day cooking.
Like all the tastes bitter has both positive and negative effects on the body and mind. The skin benefits as it relieves inflammations and creates firmness. It cleanses the digestive tract and is a great detoxifier, it can even can remove poisons and parasites! In moderation it can aid in the reduction of fat, sweat, urine, bile and mucus and remove excess water from the lymphatic system. Spiritually it has been used by many cultures for its effect on consciousness. Vision quests and other spiritual practices use bitter herbs to help people see more clearly enabeling them to see things as they really are. Too much though and you can become disillusioned and suffer from grief. On a physical level you will become depleted in muscles, fat, plasma and blood. Another reason to try to limit the amount of coffee in your diet.
- Herbs and spices - chamomile, coriander (cilantro), dandelion, echinacea, fenugreek, tarragon.
- coffee and tea
Pungent air + fire
Reduces Pitta and Kapha
Pungent is found mostly in herbs and spices. It is the hottest of all the 6 tastes so naturally garlic, ginger and chili have a pungent taste.
The elements air and fire make pungent dry, hot and light. This combination is great for getting things moving, clearing channels and removing obstructions and wastes. Mucus, oil, fat and stagnated blood is broken down and more easily eliminated. Digestion and assimilation of nutrients is also improved. Our mind as well as our body is also stimulated and cleared. All this stimulation and clearing can be depleting and can lead to fatigue. Other negative effects of too much pungent taste include insomnia (coffee is pungent as well as bitter), diarrhea, heartburn, dry skin, and a reduction in sperm and ova.
Pungent is great for decreasing kapha as it has all the qualities kapha needs for balance. As is always the case if it's good for kapha the it is not good for vata. An excess of pungent foods will aggravate all vatas of people with or vata imbalances. People needing to control pitta would also benefit from limiting the amount of pungent foods in their diets as the fire and heat will only increase their naturally hot body and mind.
Foods that are pungent include:
- Herbs and spices. A large number of hers are pungent, such as, allspice, basil, bay leaves, black pepper, caraway, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, lemon grass, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, peppermint, rosemary, saffron, sage, star anise, thyme, turmeric,
- Chia seeds, mustard seeds
- Horseradish, garlic
- Onions, chillis, mustard greens, spinach, radish, watercress
Salty fire + water
Increases Pitta and Kapha
Salty the taste that brings out the flavour of food and makes so many things taste so much better. We love to like it off our fingers and sprinkle it over our food. It's chips and nuts best friend and fast food restaurants love it.
Just like modern medicine Ayurveda does not have a lot of good things to say about the salty taste. It does have its benefits however. It improves digestion, absorption and elimination of bodily wastes. In small quantities it's good for calming the nerves, reducing anxiety and has a sedative effect on the mind. It promotes growth and can reduce pain and spasms in the colon. It is damp, hot and heavy and in excess it can thicken blood causing hypertension and increased ama (toxins). It creates wrinkles, baldness and grey hair. Skin conditions are aggravated and muscles and body strength is weakened. Water retention and edema can also result.
Fire and water are the exact same elements that make up pitta so anybody with this constitution or a pitta imbalance should be very careful of having a lot of salt in their diet. The heavy, damp qualities and water element will also increase kapha. Used in moderation it can relieve vata as warmth and weight will help ground and balance the dry, light qualities of the dosha.
The salt taste is not naturally found in foods. Sea salt, rock salt and seaweeds are pretty much the only food that has a salty taste in its raw form. Salt is however added to most processed food, fast food and snacks. The only way to truly control you intake of salt is to follow a wholefood diet and cook for yourself.
Sweet water + earth
Reduces Vata and Pitta
When we first hear the word sweet images of cakes, deserts and all things sugary come to mind, but these aren't the only types of sweet foods. Other foods, such as carbs, fruit, certain herbs and milk are also sweet.
Because sweet is composed of water and earth it increases bulk and body fluids. It strengthens and promotes the growth of bodily tissues, blood and plasma. It is very nourishing, is great for our hair, makes us happy and gives us energy. No small wonder it is such a popular taste around the world. But don't get too excited, there are as we all know, drawbacks of overindulging. The damp, cold and heavy qualities that result from the combination of water and earth create colds, mucus and congestion. The heaviness can make us lazy and can decrease our appetite and effect our agni or digestive fire. Congestion in the lymphatic system, diabetes, fibrocystic changes in the breasts and obesity may also result. So as always moderation is the key.
Being composed of water and earth makes sweet a taste that anyone with a kapha constitution or imbalance needs to be wary of. Small doses are OK but restraint is definitely needed. It is however great for vata, being entirely opposite in nature it is nicely balanced by the opposite qualities that sweet provides. As there is no fire element sweet has a positive effect on pitta constitutions or imbalances. But do not think this gives you the green light to eat as much as you like, too much of a good thing will have a negative effect and the disorders mentioned above could become a reality regardless of your constitution.
Sweet foods are:
- Sweeteners - sugar, maple syrup and honey.
- Most carbohydrates and starches, for example, wheat and rice.
- Milk, cream, ice cream.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Fruit (but not all some are sour) apples, apricots, figs, melons, strawberries. Pears and peaches are generally sweet but they sometimes can be astringent or sour.
- Vegetables - artichoke, beans, beetroot, capsicum (peppers), carrots, corn, cucumber, okra, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
- Meat and fish.
- Herbs and spices - fennel, nutmeg, poppy seeds, mint,
Sour earth + fire
Reduces vata and Kapha
Sour foods are not large in number but they are a large part of many peoples diet. Fermented foods like wine, cheese and yoghurt, and acidic fruits are everyday foods for many people.
Sour is made up of earth and fire and is damp, hot and light. The list of benefits like the list of foods is not as extensive as other tastes but that does not make sour any less important. The digestive system, which plays a very important role in our health, is stimulated and absorption of nutrients is improved. It builds up all the bodily tissues, except the reproductive, nourishes that heart and energises the body. It is said to awaken and stimulate the mind and the senses and also helps us to ground. Too much however and you could end up with hyperacidity, heartburn, ulcers and sensitive teeth. Its fermenting action can cause toxicity in the blood and skin conditions such as acne, eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and boils. Anger, jealousy, irritaion and a general sourness of the mind are also the results of excess sour tastes.
Being made up of earth and fire it is a taste that will increase both kapha and pitta. The hot and damp qualities are good for vata and will help decrease an excess of this dosha.
- Fruits- lemons, limes, grapefruit, green grapes and some plumbs, oranges, rasbarries, blueberries and blackberries.
- Fermented foods - wine, cheese, yoghurt, soy sauce, umeboshi plumbs
Astringent earth + air
Reduces Pitta and Kapha
Astringent is the taste that creates that dry, puckering sensation in the mouth when you eat and drink certain things. Dry red wines and unripe bananas are good examples.
It is cool, dry and heavy. It contracts tissues and blood canals so is great for healing wounds, ulcers and reducing bleeding. It also works as a blood purifier and can counter toxins in the body. If you have diarrhea and excessive sweat its drying qualities will be of great benefit. Astringents cool, dry qualities are also beneficial for cooling and clearing the mind. However, too much astringency can result in a build up of waste materials in the body as they are unable to be discarded through the natural process of elimination. Neuromuscular disorders can also result from excess astringency.
Astringent is not at all good for dry, airy vatas. Although it is heavy and earthy it actually decreases kapha due to its very drying nature. The cool, earthy qualities help to relieve pitta both physically and mentally.
Not a lot of foods have Astringent as their first taste so this group is much smaller than the others. These include:
- Fruits such as unripe bananas, pomegranates and cranberries.
- Chickpeas and yellow split peas.
- Alfalfa sprouts, green beans, peas, celery and jerusalem artichokes.
- Foods from the cabbage family - cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
So a bit of a different approach to looking at food and it effects on the body and mind then what most of us are used to. Have a look at your diet, experiment with increasing and decreasing different tastes and see what happens. Don't expect to see differences in a day or two be patient on see what happens after a week or so. And be strong. Like a lot of things in life the things that we love and enjoy the most are not always the things that we should be indulging in and are often the hardest to cut back on. But you don't have to be an extremist, you can still enjoy all tastes in moderation. Just listen to your body and check in with ourself from time to time to see what adjustments you need to make. Enjoy your food but eat with wisdom and care.
* As always my focus is on accessible foods, so I have only made reference to herbs that are generally used in everyday cooking, found in most kitchens and herb gardens.