How do you currently use the 5 flavours to enhance your health?
From a Chinese medicine view, foods and herbs are classified in two major ways – taste and energy. Taste describes the flavour of the herb in the mouth – namely spicy, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
It is important to note that these flavours in Chinese medicine are very subtle. For example, sweet is different from the strong, refined sugary taste used in the West, and many foods have multiple tastes you might never have guessed.
Also, different parts of the same fruit or vegetable can have different properties. For example, orange is sweet and sour in taste, but its peel is bitter. Hence, each of these parts of the same plant have different effects in the body.
The second classification refers to the energy characteristics of the herb – namely hot, warm, cold, cool, neutral, and aromatic. This describes the sensation of the herb in the stomach or on the skin.
The properties of taste and energy have specific effects and therapeutic functions in the body. If you know your body’s constitution – what benefits it and what aggravates it – and you know the properties of foods, then you can know what’s best for you to eat, what’s not, and how to combine basic foods and kitchen herbs to enhance your health.
So what are the therapeutic effects of the 5 tastes and energy/temperature characteristics?
Spicy flavour disperses, scatters, and moves the body’s Qi (vital life force). It stimulates the sweat glands to perspire, circulate Qi, activate the function of meridians and organs, and vitalize blood to promote blood circulation. As a whole, spicy herbs have the effect of activating and enhancing metabolism. Spicy herbs are commonly used in the treatment of cold, damp-cold and blood stagnant patterns with no underlying heat such as often seen in post-stroke weakness, and many digestive disorders.
Foods that are both spicy and aromatic can penetrate through turbidity in the body (often from excessive dampness or phlegm) and revive a particular function, either the digestive function of the spleen, or the cognitive functions of the spirit and sensory orifices. Examples of spicy foods: black pepper, cabbage (purple), cayenne pepper, chillis, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, daikon, green bell pepper, horseradish, leeks, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, radishes, rosemary, soya oil, turnips, watercress, wheat germ, wine.
Sweet flavour has the function of strengthening, warming, moistening and harmonizing many of the important systems of the body, including the digestive, respiratory, immune and endocrine systems. Sweet can also relieve urgency and inhibit pain due to the constrictive action of muscles. Sweet substances are commonly used for treating deficiency patterns such as dry cough, anemia, suppressed immune system, and dysfunction of the digestive system. Examples of sweet foods: aduki beans, apples, apricots, avocados, barley, beef, beetroot, cabbage (green), carrots, celery (stalk), cheese, cherries, chicken, chickpeas, corn, cucumber, dates, grapes, grapefruit, kidney beans, milk, mung beans, mushrooms, oats, oranges, peaches, peanuts, pineapples, plums, pork, potatoes, radishes, rice, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, walnuts, wine, zucchini.
Sour flavour constricts and consolidates through its astringing effect. Sour prevents or reverses abnormal leakage of fluids and Qi. Herbs of sour taste are often indicated for use in sweating due to deficiency, chronic cough, chronic diarrhea, seminal and urinary incontinences, leakage of spermatic fluid, and other conditions related to hypo-metabolism (under-performance) such as allergies, diabetes type II and hypo-thyroidism. Examples of sour foods: aduki beans, apples, apricots, avocados, blackberries, blackcurrants, cheese, crab apples, gooseberries, grapes, grapefruit, green leafy vegetables, lemons, limes, lychees, mangoes, olives, peaches, pears, pineapples, plums, pomegranate, strawberries, tomatoes, trout, vinegar.
Salty foods, found more commonly in sea products, have the function of softening hard masses and fibrous adhesions. Salty taste purges and opens the bowels, and acts as a diuretic. Examples: abalone, barley, clams, crab, duck, fish, garlic, ham, kelp, lobster, millet, mussels, oysters, pork, sardines, seaweed.
Bitter substances drain, dry and cool the body. They possess the function of clearing heat, purging the bowels, and drying dampness or water retention.
Bitter taste is commonly used in fire-heat patterns, such as the acute stage of infectious disease, foot fungal infections, itchy genitals, and patterns of damp-heat or damp-cold, such as in rheumatoid arthritis, gout, acne, or leucorrhoea. Examples of bitter foods: alfalfa, asparagus, bittermelon, broccoli, celery (leaves), chrysanthemum, coffee, grapefruit peel, lettuce, liver, orange peel, radishes, raspberry leaf tea, rye, turnips, vinegar, watercress.
None of these 5 tastes are universally “good” or “bad”, but they are not suitable in excessive amounts over the long-term, or for certain people with specific constitutions. For example, someone with difficulty sleeping, or restlessness during sleep, frequent irritability, hyper-thyroidism, constipation, and/or a history of hemorrhoids, acid reflux or gout would do better to balance this with much more sour, cold and bitter-flavoured foods because sour taste has the opposite effect of spicy. Or, depending on the condition, it may be advisable to avoid spicy, aromatic foods altogether for a period of time until health is re-balanced.
On the other hand, post-delivery women or overweight individuals with leg swelling, frequent digestive bloating, and/or achy cold pains throughout the body with history of low thyroid or anemia would do well to eat spicy, aromatic, warm herbs and avoid excessive amounts of sweet, cold foods including salads, green tea, gluten, and dairy foods.
In terms of energy and temperature characteristics, warm herbs can be used for heat disorders, but they must be mixed with cool/cold herbs so that the overall balance of the herbal formula is on the cooling side. Likewise, cool herbs can be used for cold disorders as long as the overall balance of the formula is warming.
Warming foods other than spices include beef, cheese, chicken, egg yolk, ginseng, kale, lamb, peanut butter, pu’er tea, prawns/shrimp, smoked fish, trout. Cooling foods include almonds, amaranth, cauliflower, celery, corn, daikon, fish, fruits, green tea, melons, mint, mung beans, salads, soya beans, tofu, yogurt.
So, given your body’s constitution and health condition, how might you better balance the tastes and warming/cooling properties of your food? If you listen closely to your body, it will guide you.
Visit TCM Food Therapy Chart to view a comparison of the tastes and energetic properties of several foods in chart form.