The 6 Tastes According to Ayurveda: Our Innate Roadmap to Optimal Nutrition
According to Ayurveda, our sense of taste is a natural road map towards proper nutrition - and when we can learn to tune into the tastes naturally desired by our body, we are able access this innate wisdom.
By learning to tune into our body's nutritional desires beyond emotional or habitual cravings, we can begin to develop the ability to organically meet our body’s nutritional needs, rather than relying on misleading food marketing, nutritional labels or food pyramids.
Similar to the body’s physical & energetic make up, the 6 tastes (rasas): sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent & astringent, outlined in Ayurveda, are combinations of the 5 elements: ether, air, fire, water, earth, found in nature. While individual foods are composed of multiple tastes one taste (rasa) predominates. For example, fresh garlic (an extreme case) contains every taste except for salty, however the primary taste is pungent.
From a modern nutritional perspective, the 6 tastes satisfy each of the major dietary building blocks. Furthermore, the tastes of herbs and food are not seen as incidental, rather as indications of their properties and effects on the body, each feeding our mind, body, senses & spirit in their own unique way.
For example, sweet foods are generally rich in the carbohydrates needed to build our tissues, while pungent foods help increase enzymatic activity.
The tastes of what we consume are also said to directly affect our nervous system through the prana (lifeforce) in the mouth, which is connected to the prana in the brain. It’s said that each taste has a unique effect on the doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha), and when our doshas are out of balance, the six tastes have the power to help us move towards balance.
When it comes to achieving a balanced diet, Ayurveda recommends 2 general rules: 1) including all 6 tastes in each meal & 2) allowing our unique constitution to determine the proportion of these tastes.
While at first, it can seem overwhelming to think about how to properly incorporate all 6 tastes into each meal, once we become more familiar with the tastes and the common foods that they live in, we begin to realize how intuitive it all actually is.
So what are the 6 tastes, their qualities & effects and where can we find them?
Sweet taste naturally increases bulk, moisture & weight in the body & is ideal for building the body’s 7 tissues (dhatus) of plasma, blood, fat, muscle, bones, marrow & reproductive fluid. Of the six tastes, it is known to be the most grounding and nourishing, but also the most abused taste in the modern world. When eaten in moderation, it promotes longevity, strength, and healthy bodily fluids & tissues. It is also said to enhance ojas, love & compassion.
Quality = heavy, moist, cooling
Elements = water + earth
Foods: Butter, ghee, cream, wheat, rice, barley, beans, lentils, bananas, mangoes, cooked carrots, potatoes & beets, dates, honey, pumpkin, maple syrup, licorice
Decreases Pitta, Vata
Mental / Emotional Impact: Promotes love and contentment and harmonizes the mind in all the doshas. It helps calm the anxious Vata mind & cool the fiery Pitta mind. When consumed in excess (particularly by Kapha types) sweet taste can cause lethargy & attachment.
Sour taste stimulates digestion, stimulates circulation & elimination, energizes the body, strengthens the heart, relieves thirst, maintains acidity, sharpens the senses & helps to extract minerals from food. It also nourishes all the vital tissues (dhatus) with exception of the reproductive tissues and is said to increase metabolism & attention span.
Quality = hot, light, moist
Elements = fire + earth
Foods: citrus fruits (lemon, lime), yogurt, cheese, sour cream, wine, vinegar, tamarind, wine, kimchi & soy sauce
Increases Pitta, Kapha
Mental / Emotional Impact: Sharpens the Vata mind & senses. Can irritate Pitta types, causing them to become angry, manipulative or overly critical. When consumed in excess by Kapha types may cause them to be envious of jealous.
Salty taste is softening and sedative. In moderation, salty taste lubricates tissues, improves digestion, liquefies mucous, maintains mineral balance, aids in the elimination of wastes & calms the nerves / anxiety.
Quality = hot, heavy, moist
Elements = fire + water
Foods: sea salt, seaweed, kelp, salted nuts, pickles, tamari, black olives
Increases Pitta, Vata
Mental / Emotional Impact: Calms the anxious Vata mind, but can overstimulate the Pitta mind, leading to stubbornness & anger. Too much for Kapha promotes greed.
Bitter taste is a powerful detoxifying agent, and has antibiotic, anti-parasitic & antiseptic qualities. It reduces all bodily tissues and increases lightness in the mind & emotions and helps digest sugar & fat. It is also helpful in reducing weight, water retention, skin rashes, fever, and nausea.
Quality = light, cooling, dry
Elements = air + ether
Foods: leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard) zucchini, eggplant, turmeric, fenugreek, dandelion root, coffee, bitter melon, olives, mustard
Decreases Pitta, Kapha
Mental / Emotional Impact: Cools the fiery mind of Pitta while clearing the foggy Kapha mind. Too much for Vata can stimulate grief & depression.
Pungent taste is stimulant & diaphoretic. In small amounts pungent taste stimulates digestion, clears the sinuses, promotes sweating & detoxification, dispels gas, aids circulation, improves metabolism & relieves muscle pain. It is also said to open the mind and senses and relieve nerve pain and muscle tension.
Quality = hot, dry, light
Elements = fire + air
Foods: cayenne, garlic, ginger, onion, chili peppers, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, black tea
Increases Pitta, Vata
Mental / Emotional Impact: Causes all doshas to become for expressive and extroverted. Too much for pitta excites anger and resentment
Taken in moderation, its contracting & drying quality stops bleeding, absorbs water, tightens tissues, dries fat, heals skin wounds, ulcers & mucous membranes. It also has antibiotic & antibacterial, anti-inflammatory effects and increases absorption of nutrients.
Quality = dry, cooling, heavy
Elements air + earth
Foods: green banana, pomegranate, alfalfa sprouts, cranberries, broccoli, cauliflower, rye, buckwheat, okra, turnip, artichoke, marjoram, coffee, green tea, comfrey leaves, plantains
Decreases Pitta, Kapha
Mental / Emotional Impact: Constricts the over-confidence of Pitta types and the over-complacency of Kapha. Promotes fear & insecurity when consumed in excess by Vata.
It's said that the right combination of these 6 tastes stimulates the proper sequence of digestion with the sweet taste (the heaviest) being metabolized first, followed by sour, salty, bitter, pungent & astringent (the lightest).
What’s interesting to note is that this sequence of digestion does not parallel the order in which we typically consume foods in the West, as we tend to enjoy rich, sweet & heavy desserts at the end of the meal, and start our meals with the bitter & astringent flavors found in salads. Over time, this way of disordered eating has the ability to put a major strain on our digestive tract.
While many of us have been conditioned to eat a certain way from childhood, it’s important to consider the impact, many of these unconscious habits we’ve been taught, have on our digestion. While it may not be realistic to always eat the tastes in the order of digestion due to the fact that most foods are a combination of many tastes, there are always small ways we can help our digestion.
A practice I’ve been experimenting with since first learning of this, has been to enjoy sweet treats on their own, a few hours before or after meals as a snack rather than an after-dinner treat, and instead opting for a digestion boosting beverage post meal.
Like anything in Ayurveda, it's all about the small and consistent changes we make to our diet and lifestyle that hold the power to help us move toward greater balance. For more information on how to eat for your constitution or to determine your unique constitution, contact me. I can help. 😊
Information adapted from: Eat, Taste, Heal; The Yoga of Herbs & Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing