Food As Medicine: The Six Tastes of Ayurveda
One of the most important concepts to understand that supports Ayurvedic treatment protocols is that of the six tastes. The six tastes are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter & Astringent. Each of these tastes is the combination of two elements, similar to how the Dosha’s are constructed. By understanding what taste is predominant in a food, one can understand the dominant elements and thus have a lens to view food accurately as either supporting healing or contributing to pathology.
The word taste in Ayurveda is called “Rasa”. Rasa is a word with many meanings such as sap, plasma, essence, juice, taste or melody to name a few. In this way, when we talk of the Rasa of a food or substance we are at once talking about literally how it affects the taste buds but also how that taste reverberates in the whole of the physiology. The flavors of life that we take in become our dominant Rasa. Most would agree that we desire a Sweet life over a Bitter Life. Lets take a closer look at each of the six tastes:
The Sweet taste is made up of the Earth and Water elements. It has the qualities of cold, heavy, stable and moist. It increases Kapha dosha and decreases Pitta & Vata dosha. It is the most nourishing of all tastes and is predominant in most of our macro nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The sweet taste is the most nourishing of all the tastes.
The Sour taste is made up of the Earth and Fire elements. It has the qualities of hot, light, moist and oily. It increases Pitta and Kapha dosha and decreases Vata dosha. As a taste it increases the digestive fire of the body promotes the secretion of saliva as well as the function of the liver. The Sour taste is very grounding for a scattered nervous system by virtue of its warming and moistening nature.
The Salty taste is made up of the Water and Fire elements. It has the qualities of warm, heavy, and moist. It increases the Pitta and Kapha dosha and decreases Vata dosha. Some salts that are high in mineral content can actually reduce Pitta dosha and so this tendency of the Salty taste can vary. In the right amount, salt enkindles digestion and softens the tissues of the body
The Pungent taste is made up of the Fire and Air elements. It has the qualities of hot, light, dry and mobile. It increases Pitta and Vata dosha and decreases Kapha dosha. In the right quantity and proportion, the cold dispelling properties of Pungent can reduce Vata dosha, however by itself the drying properties will take precedent and increase Vata. The Pungent taste is the best for excess Kapha dosha as this taste embodies the opposite qualities.
The Bitter taste is made up of the Air and Ether elements. It has the qualities of cold, light, dry and mobile. It increases Vata dosha and decreases Pitta and Kapha dosha. Bitter is the most depleting of all the tastes however it is arguably the most useful as it has the ability to “make space” in the body by draining and drying excess fluids. This can be used to stimulate and clean the blood and organs, particularly the liver. Although in general the Bitter taste decreases digestive function, a small amount of the Bitter taste taken on an empty stomach can actually increase digestive secretions, similar to the effect of a bellows on a fire. Just the right amount will feed the flames while too much will blow it out.
The Astringent taste is made up of the Earth and Air elements. It has the qualities of cold, heavy and dry. It increases Vata dosha and decreases Pitta and Kapha dosha. This is the driest of all the tastes and its main function is to dry and pull tissues together. This makes it very useful as a way to heal wounds of the skin as well as prevent loose tissues from becoming too flaccid or prolapsed. This drying effect can also be useful when the stools are producing in too liquid of a state.