There are 6 primary tastes - sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Sweet is nourishing, stabilizing and healing. Sour stimulates the sense organs and gives rise to relish for food. Salty is moistening, softening and appetizing. Bitter clears the palate, absorbs moisture and removes toxins. Pungent stimulates digestion and opens the channels.
According to Ayurveda, there are 6 primary tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. They are formed by the combination of the 5 elements water, earth, fire, air and space, in varying amounts.
Each taste (or should we say a substance that tastes a particular way) is associated with specific properties. Each season is predominant in a different quality or element. For example, plants grown in the late summer will have more fire element, and thus more pungent taste. Plants grown in the spring will have more water element and thus more sweet taste.
Palatability or unpalatability of a taste is subjective according to the person doing the tasting.
How Taste Influences Health
As per Ayurveda, health is maintained through a balance of 3 doshas or body humors:
- Vata representing the tendency to flow and transfer
- Pitta representing the tendency to separate, break down and transform
- Kapha representing the tendency to join, aggregate and accumulate
The tastes aggravate those humors to which they are similar or mostly similar in properties and pacify by regular use those to which they are contrary or mostly contrary in properties. For example, sweet substances pacify Vata and Pitta, so if you are suffering from flatulence and acidity, eating something sweet can provide relief. On the other hand, if you are feeling constipated and heavy, you are probably suffering from excessive Kapha, so eating something sweet can aggravate the problem.
Ayurveda also differentiates between how a substance tastes and its effect within the body. In most cases, the the taste and the effect are similar. However, there are cases where the taste and the effect might be different. For example, pungent substances have a heating effect in the body and are therefore generally anti-aphrodisiac in nature, but ginger is an exception.
The Ayurvedic Rasas (Tastes)
- is nourishing, vitalizing, saturating, bulk-promoting and stabilizing
- pleasing to six sense organs – is delighting for nose, mouth, throat, lips and tongue
- alleviates Pitta, Vata and poisons
- pacifies thirst and heat
- promotes healing in wounds
- is unctuous, cold and heavy
Excessive consumption can aggravate Kapha, cause obesity, laxity, lassitude, over-sleep, heaviness, mildness of appetite, hardness of bowels and vomiting.
- stimulates the sense organs, gives rise to relish for food, salivates mouth
- stimulates agni (metabolic fire)
- alleviates Vata
- promotes the bulk of the body and gives energy to it
- awakens mind
- carries down, moistens and digests food
- is light, hot and unctuous
Excessive consumption aggravates Pitta and Kapha, causes thirst, causes heat in muscles and laxity in body, slows down healing of injuries and causes burning sensation in throat, chest and cardiac region.
- is digestive, moistening, appetizing, mass-breaking
- irritant, laxative, expectorant
- oozing, space-creating
- alleviates Vata
- removes stiffness, binding and compactness, softens all the body parts
- salivates mouth, gives relish to food, is an associate of food
- liquefies Kapha, cleanses channels
- is unctuous and hot, overshadows all the other tastes
Excessive consumption aggravates Pitta and Kapha, causes thirst, increases skin diseases, aggravates poisons, damages potency, hinders sense organs, gives rise to wrinkles, gray hair, and baldness, produces disorders like internal hemorrhage, acid gastritis, reduces ability to bear pain.
- cleanses mouth
- stimulates digestion
- absorbs food
- causes secretion from the nose and eyes, makes the sense organs clear
- alleviates laziness
- checks the coagulation of blood, cuts the bindings, opens the channels
- pacifies Kapha
- is light, hot and rough
Excessive consumption aggravates Vata and Pitta, damages sexual potency, causes mental confusion, malaise, depression, giddiness, burning in throat, body heat, loss of strength and thirst due and symptoms like burning pain, tremors, piercing and tearing pains.
- though itself is non-relishing, destroys disrelish, clears the palate
- is anti-poison, anthelmintic
- is antipyretic, appetizing, digestive
- alleviates burning sensation and thirst
- provides firmness to skin and muscles
- absorbent of moisture, Pitta and Kapha
- is rough, cold, and light
Excessive consumption aggravates Vata, causes dryness, coarseness in channels, takes away strength, causes mental confusion and giddiness.
- is pacifying, union promoting, compressing, healing, absorbing, checking (of discharges)
- pacifies Kapha and Pitta
- produces nonsliminess, stiffness and coldness in tongue
- is rough, cold and slightly light
Excessive consumption aggravates Vata, causes heartache, flatulence, hindrance in voice, slowing of movement in channels, impotency, gas formation during digestion, produces thirst and stiffness.
Nothing is more important to long term health than the food we eat, and taste is the body’s way of providing cues to ensure that we eat right. Our body has an innate understanding of what we should eat and what we should not – for example, when we have a cold or a sore throat, sour foods don’t taste so good!
But then, not all of us observe our body’s feedback very keenly on a daily basis. Having a simple map of tastes of foods, their properties and their effect on the body can help us gradually relearn the art of observing and healing ourselves. Ayurveda provides such a map. Go ahead, use it and reap its benefits!