Much of the wisdom of Ayurvedic nutrition rests on the tip of your tongue, literally!
In Ayurvedic philosophy the sense of taste is a natural trigger for the brain to prepare and assimilate food. These triggers send signals to all body systems that cascade into body system response(s). Our tastebuds do much more than simply identify tastes; they unlock the nutritive value of foods and provide the initial spark to the entire digestive process to start ticking and tocking in synergetic harmony.
Food speaks to us directly through taste. A coconut may call out to us with a gentle message of soft delight, while the flaming chili pepper cries out in heat. As we tune into the tastes naturally desired by the body, we tap into the body’s innate wisdom regarding food and nutrition.
Ayurveda identifies 6 Tastes by which all foods can be categorized: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent. While the first four tastes are probably recognizable, the last two may not seem familiar. Pungent taste is hot and spicy as found in a chili pepper, while Astringent taste is dry and light as found a sip of wine.
Taste Primary Actions Common Sources
Builds tissues, calms nerves
Cleanses tissues, increases absorption of minerals
Improves taste to food, lubricates tissues, stimulates digestion
Detoxifies and lightens tissues
Stimulates digestion and metabolism
Absorbs water, tightens tissues, dries fats
The Basic Principles of Ayurvedic Nutrition
Include all 6 Tastes in each meal
The 6 Tastes offer us a user-friendly guide map for how to nourish ourselves. Rather than looking at nutritional labels for X amount of protein or Y amount of carbohydrates, the 6 Tastes naturally guide us towards our body’s nutritional needs. Each taste feeds our mind, body, senses, and spirit in its own unique way. From a modern nutritional perspective, the 6 Tastes satisfy each of the major dietary building blocks. Sweet foods, for example, are rich in fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and water, whereas Bitter and Astringent foods are high in vitamins and minerals.
The brain sends the body signals when it requires energy in the form of food. By incorporating all 6 Tastes into each meal, we ensure that these signals are adequately met, thus avoiding food cravings or the over-consumption of certain foods..
Including the 6 tastes in each meal doesn’t need to be a daunting task. Adding a squeeze of lemon to cooked dishes, for example, can quickly satisfy the Sour taste, while adding a side salad will fulfill the Bitter and Astringent tastes.
Allow your unique constitution to determine the proportion of tastes you eat
The body naturally desires tastes that balance its doshic makeup and shuns tastes of an aggravating nature. In this sense, things are made pretty easy for us: If we simply follow our natural inclinations, we are led to the proper foods. Vata individuals, for example, are naturally drawn to moist, grounding foods, while Kapha individuals favor light, drying foods.
Ayurvedic nutrition recommends including all 6 tastes in each meal, while favoring those tastes that bring greater balance to your particular constitution.
Sweet taste results from the combination of Water and Earth and is heavy, moist, and cooling by nature. In the West, sugary foods are most commonly associated with this taste. Sweet taste is also found in milk and milk products (like butter, ghee, and cream), most grains (especially wheat, rice, and barley), many legumes (like beans and lentils), sweet fruits (such as bananas and mangos), and certain cooked vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets). Sweet taste naturally increases bulk, moisture, and weight in the body. For this reason, it is excellent for building the body’s seven vital tissues (called dhatus) of plasma, blood, fat, muscles, bones, marrow, and reproductive fluids. Sweet taste also increases saliva, soothes mucous membranes and burning sensations, relieves thirst, and has beneficial effects on the skin, hair, and voice.
Sour Taste is composed of Earth and Fire and is hot, light, and moist by nature. It is commonly found in citrus fruits (such as lemon and limes), sour milk products (like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream), and fermented substances (including wine, vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, and soy sauce). Used in moderation, Sour taste stimulates digestion, helps circulation and elimination, energizes the body, strengthens the heart, relieves thirst, maintains acidity, sharpens the senses, and helps extract minerals such as iron from food. It also nourishes all the vital tissues (dhatus) except the reproductive tissues (the exception being yogurt, which nourishes all the tissues).
Salty taste is composed of Fire and Water and is hot, heavy, and moist by nature. It is found in any salt (such as sea salt and rock salt), sea vegetables (like seaweed and kelp), and foods to which large amounts of salt are added (like nuts, chips, and pickles). Due to its drying quality in the mouth, it may seem counterintuitive to think of Salty taste as moistening. The element of Water in its composition, however, relates to its water retaining quality. Salty taste falls somewhere between Sweet and Sour tastes with regard to its heavy and moist qualities. While Sweet taste stimulates the greatest water retention and weight gain in the body, Salty taste will have similar effects when used in excess by any of the doshas.
In moderation, Salty taste improves the flavour of food, improves digestion, lubricates tissues, liquefies mucous, maintains mineral balance, aids in the elimination of wastes, and calms the nerves. Due to its tendency to attract water, it also improves the radiance of the skin and promotes overall growth in the body.
Pungent taste derives from the elements of Fire and Air and is hot, dry, and light. It is the hottest of all the 6 Tastes and is found in certain vegetables (such as chili peppers, garlic, and onions), and in spices (like black pepper, ginger, and cayenne). In small amounts, Pungent taste stimulates digestion, clears the sinuses, promotes sweating and detoxification, dispels gas, aids circulation, improves metabolism, and relieves muscle pain.
Bitter taste is composed of Air and Ether and is light, cooling, and dry by nature. It is found in green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, and green cabbage), other vegetables (including zucchini and eggplant), herbs and spices (like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root), coffee, tea, and certain fruits (such as grapefruits, olives, and bitter melon). While Bitter taste is often not appealing alone, it stimulates the appetite and helps bring out the flavor of the other tastes. Bitter taste is a powerful detoxifying agent, and has antibiotic, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic qualities. It is also helpful in reducing weight, water retention, skin rashes, fever, burning sensations and nausea.
Astringent taste results from the combination of Air and Earth and is dry, cooling, and heavy by nature. It is the least common of all the 6 Tastes and can be found in legumes (such as beans and lentils), fruits (including cranberries, pomegranates, pears, and dried fruit), vegetables (such as, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus and turnip), grains (such as rye, buckwheat, and quinoa), spices and herbs (including turmeric and marjoram), coffee, and tea. Astringent taste is not as cold as Bitter taste but has a greater cooling effect on the body than Sweet taste.
Astringent taste is classified more in relation to its effect on the tongue than its actual taste. It creates a puckering sensation in the mouth (such as cranberries) or a dry, chalky feeling (such as many beans). Foods like broccoli or cauliflower have a mildly Astringent taste that is less detectable. Dry foods such as crackers and chips, most raw vegetables, and the skins of fruits also have Astringent qualities.