Ayurveda recognizes six taste categories of food: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter & astringent. Ideally, we should consume all six daily. Everything we eat has a specific taste & impacts the body & mind in specific ways. When you incorporate all six tastes in your meals you maintain balanced nutrition, optimize digestion & feel physically & mentally satisfied overall.
Each taste is comprised of two elements & corresponds to a dosha. Ayurvedic food guidelines recognize that each taste has an effect on the doshas; this is why eating in accordance to each season (macroenvironment) is as imperative as eating in accordance with one’s own doshic constitution (microenvironment).
Sweet = Water + Earth
Sour = Fire + Earth
Salty = Fire + Water
Pungent = Fire + Air
Bitter = Air + Space
Astringent = Air + Earth
Each taste has a corresponding therapeutic value:
- Sweet taste promotes growth (ex: milk)
- Sour taste increases agni/digestion (ex: lemon or lime)
- Salty taste enhances other food tastes (ex: salt)
- Pungent taste opens & cleans bio-channels (ex: cayenne)
- Bitter taste purifies toxins (ex: turmeric or bitter greens)
- Astringent taste ceases flow of fluids (ex: tea)
Based on the Ayurvedic principle that like increases like & opposites balance, when tastes are consumed, the five elements that make them up either increase (aggravate) or decrease (pacify) corresponding doshas.
The Western diet is composed mostly of sweet, sour & salty- it’s no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic, high numbers of irritable bowel syndromes and digestive disorders as well as numerous other diseases-these are the heaviest & most addicting food tastes! In order to achieve better balance in the mind and body, it’s imperative to include tastes from the pungent, bitter & astringent categories, as these three tastes cleanse, “wring out” and purify toxins from our systems.
Interestingly enough, the Sanskrit word rasa, means both taste & emotion- there really is no such thing as non-emotional eating; the mind and the body are intrinsically connected, especially in regards to food we consume.
Sweet Taste: Earth & Water
Of all tastes sweet is the heaviest and moistest; it’s heaviness is very nourishing and tonifying and aids in building tissue while the moist quality hydrates the body.
In excess it can damage the pancreas and spleen, leading to diabetes, obesity, and ama formation. Too little leads to weakness and emaciation.
Psychologically, the sweet taste increases ojas. It creates a feeling of satisfaction in the mind, it also helps in developing endurance against stress. As it is cooling, it can decrease heated emotions like judgement, criticism & anger. As it is heavy, it can reduce symptoms like anxiety, however, too much can result in complacency.
Who benefits: Those who wish to balance vata or pitta doshas.
When to use caution: When experiencing excessive kapha: excess body fat, when experiencing active phlegm, cough or asthma, those with fungal or parasitic infections, & those with diabetes should limit sweet foods. Reduce sweet taste during kapha time of year- late winter & spring, as the body wants to cleanse, detox and purify its tissues.
- Examples: breads, pastas, grains, sweet fruits, starchy veggies, dairy, natural sweeteners & even meat
- Action on Doshas: Pacifies pitta & vata, aggravates kapha
Sour Taste: Fire & Earth
A digestive stimulant, it encourages appetite and saliva production, it’s required by the agni in small amounts. The sour taste not only improves appetite, digestion & elimination, but also awakens the thoughts and emotions. It needs to be eaten in moderation; in excess, it can quickly lead to aggression or envy in the mind.
Who benefits: Those who need to increase agni or balance vata dosha.
When to use caution: Excessive consumption or the sour taste aggravates pitta dosha. Those with pitta aggravations: burning digestion, hyperacidity, ulcers, or other burning & heat related physical symptoms should reduce sour tastes. This taste is also reduced in summer months.
- Examples: alcohol, citrus fruits, vinegars & fermented foods like kombucha, pickles, saurkraut, yogurt
- Action on Doshas: Aggravates pitta & kapha, pacifies vata
Bitter Taste: Air & Ether
Bitter is considered the coolest and lightest of all the tastes. Because of its cool qualities, it’s highly detoxifying and can help remove waste products from the body- it metabolizes food toxins & unblocks bio-channels. Bitter foods are generally antiphlegm, antiparasitic, antipyretic, antitoxic & antiobesity.
Bitter foods also help mental purification with their cleansing actions, but in excess can cultivate “bitter” emotions.
Who benefits: Anyone with excess kapha or pitta. The bitter taste should be increased in spring as it cleans & clears excess kapha and is helpful in summer months as it naturally cools pitta.
When to use caution: the dry & cold qualities of the bitter taste can aggravate vata conditions like insomnia, dryness, weakness, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, bloating, excess gas, or tissue loss/emaciation.
- Examples: most green & yellow veggies: kale, spinach, cilantro, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, etc
- Action on Doshas: Aggravates vata, pacifies pitta & kapha
Astringent Taste: Air & Earth
Astringent taste imparts a puckering effect on all bio-channels in the body- like a constricting or drying up. At times this works great: excess sweating, bleeding, diarrhea or vomiting are times when the body can use more astringency. However in excess in can constrict body channels unnecessarily and even create mental constrictions like feeling fearful, frozen or restricted.
Who benefits: All doshas benefit when consumed in small amounts
When to use caution: this taste aggravates vata very quickly. Reduce if experiencing dryness, gas, bloating, circulation issues, constipation or muscle cramps & spasms.
- Examples: this is a difficult taste to notice immediately, but can be observed through the drying or puckering sensation it induces; most noticeable in unripe bananas, lentils, dahl, beans, pomegranate, grapefruit, green tea, cranberries, sprouts & tart apples
- Action on Doshas: Aggravates vata, pacifies pitta & kapha
How to Use the Six Tastes
Remember, we need all six tastes every day- ideally at every meal. Think of these six flavors as paint colors- use them daily to paint a new portrait of your health!
It is most important to eat what is in season. Eating for the season is what nature’s wisdom intended for us and helps keeps doshas in balance, promoting maximum mental & physiological strength, or ojas. Eating for the season is one of Ayurveda’s primary preventative health principles- this is a universal prescription for optimal wellness.
However, if you are experiencing digestive upset, or aggravated doshas, you then eat in order to balance or pacify the doshas that are out of balance. Beyond addressing the macroenvironment (seasons), you must address the microenvironment, or your individual needs, if you have imbalances in your body. This is a personalized prescription to correct an imbalance with food as medicine.
If you have significant imbalances, a diagnosed disease condition & are interested in using food & the six tastes as medicine, I highly recommend working with an Ayurvedic professional to help create the most optimal diet program for your needs. However, in a nutshell here are some general doshic guidelines:
Vata: Favor sweet, sour, salty.
Minimize bitter, pungent, astringent
Pitta: Favor sweet, bitter, astringent.
Minimize pungent, sour, salty
Kapha: Favor bitter, pungent, astringent.
Minimize sweet, sour, salty
Bon Appetit! 😉