By Samantha Case
Taste holds a very different meaning in Ayurveda than it does in the West. Ayurveda teaches that the taste of a particular food, spice, or herb determines the impact it has on our state of balance. Foods communicate through taste the impact they’ll have on our system. The abundance of flavors we experience daily are made up of one or more of the six primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each one plays a vital role in our physiology and overall well being.
The Significance of Taste
Rasa is the Sanskrit word for taste, and it can also be translated as juice, essence, or experience. Taste is the essence of food. It’s what provides the sensory experience of eating. Would you be as motivated to eat without the delicious, delectable flavors of each bite? Taste is pleasurable (though it can at times be unpleasant), but that’s not its sole purpose.
According to Ayurveda, taste is a therapeutic tool that flavors our entire experience of life. The taste of each food, spice, and herb we consume affects the state of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Taste hints at the qualities that are present within whatever it is we’re consuming, and each one provides its own set of qualities. Just as with anything else, when we consume too much or too little of a particular taste, we can experience imbalance as a result. But when we consume just the right amount, our bodies maintain balance and health.
Each taste is composed of a combination of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Many things impact the taste of something: where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how it’s harvested, how it’s cooked or processed, if it’s fresh or old, and more. Understanding each taste and its impact empowers us to make choices that are healthy for the body, depending on our unique needs. The more we understand the qualities of what we’re consuming, the more agency we have to make choices that lead to health and nourishment.
The Six Tastes
Sweet (Madhura): Water + Earth Elements
The sweet taste is perhaps one of the most well known and the favorite for many people, especially in the West. Sweet foods line the aisles of groceries stores in abundance. Many of us learn that anything that’s sweet is unhealthy for the body, but it’s the processed foods and excess sugar in the Standard American Diet that’s unhealthy and not the sweet taste itself. Sweetness is just as important and necessary as the rest of them.
Examples of Sweet Foods
Milk and ghee
Dates and figs
The sweet taste benefits the mucus membranes throughout the body, and it can also calm the mind. It can strengthen the immune system, increase longevity, and generate ojas (immunity). In excess (we’ve all been there!) sweet foods can weaken the digestive fire, increase mucus, cause congestion, lead to a buildup of ama (toxins) in the body, and more.
Sour (Amla): Fire + Earth Elements
Our first introduction to sour foods usually happens as a baby and involves a single bite into a lemon, causing a twisted facial expression that’ll make any parent laugh. The sour taste moistens the mouth and promotes saliva. It’s acidic and is often the result of acids in certain kinds of food: citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, oxalic acid, and ascorbic acid.
Examples of Sour Foods
Lemon and lime
Butter, cheese, sour cream, and yogurt
The sour taste increases agni (digestive fire), fueling appetite and supporting digestion. It also flushes out excess vata while stimulating and energizing the body. Sour foods are typically high in vitamin C and often carry antioxidant qualities. Just like all tastes, the sour taste can be overdone. Too many sour foods in your diet can dry out mucus membranes and cause congestion. It can also lead to a number of issues related to an aggravation of pitta dosha: rashes, eczema, psoriasis, heartburn, and more.
Salty (Lavana): Fire + Water Elements
Along with sweetness, the salty taste is among those that are more well known. This taste is almost entirely derived from salt and is found in many recipes and foods. It’s also commonly added to foods to enhance flavor.
Examples of Salty Foods
Tuna and other fish
The salty taste increases salvation and supports digestion. It has a softening effect on the body’s tissues and can act as a mild laxative. Salt clears the channels of the body and keeps things moving. It’s also soothing to the nervous system. Too much salt aggravates all three of the doshas. In excess, salt can burn through the tissues and cause premature wrinkling or blood disorders. It can lead to high blood pressure, hyperacidity, ulcers, and intestinal inflammation, among others.
Pungent (Katu): Fire + Air Elements
The pungent taste is like an obsessive cleaner in the house of the body. It rides through its channels, clearing out everything–sometimes even the good! If you eat spicy foods, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The pungent taste is composed of dry heat and is dominant in anything that’s spicy.
Examples of Pungent Foods
Black pepper and most spices
We need pungent foods to kindle the digestive fire, cleanse the sense organs, and clear out stagnation and congestion. The pungent taste is the housekeeper we need, but only in moderate amounts especially for vata and pitta constitutions. It’s incredibly beneficial for kapha dosha for its ability to clear excess kapha from the body, increase circulation, and clear out toxins. Too much of this taste can impair ojas (immunity) and scorch the body. Its qualities can be extremely drying and burning, leading to tremors, insomnia, heartburn, peptic ulcers, and more.
Bitter (Tikta): Air + Space Elements
The bitter taste is familiar to many people, though it isn’t commonly sought after. In fact many people actively avoid the bitter taste, although it can provide many therapeutic benefits.
Examples of Bitter Foods
Leafy greens (kale, collards, dandelion greens)
Turmeric, fenugreek, cumin
The bitter taste destroys toxins, and we need it to cleanse the body. It clears out heat, congestion, and excess moisture. It also stimulates a healthy appetite and clears parasites from the GI tract. The bitter taste is supportive of pitta dosha because it strengthens digestion while also relieving burning and swelling. In excess, the bitter taste can weaken the kidneys and lungs, dry out the mouth and skin, cause abdominal distention and pain, and aggravate vata dosha.
Astringent (Kashaya): Air + Earth Elements
The astringent taste is more difficult to identify by taste alone, but it’s easier to identify by understanding its immediate effect. Astringent foods cause a noticeably dry and chalky sensation in the mouth (think about what it’s like to eat a really green, unripe banana). This taste is typically produced by organic substances (tannins) found in the bark and leaves of fruits and trees.
Examples of Astringent Foods
Raw carrots & most other raw vegetables
The astringent taste provides a number of benefits. It absorbs excess moisture, decongests, helps in the healing of wounds and ulcers, prevents excess bleeding and diarrhea. Too much of the astringent taste will provoke vata, potentially causing dryness in the mouth, chest pain, bloating, constipation, and weakening of the digestive fire.
Six Tastes & The Doshas
When all three doshas are balanced in the body, you can consume all six tastes on a regular basis without your inner harmony being interrupted (some tastes will be more preferable than others depending on the season).
Our bodies are naturally designed to stay in balance and avoid disease. When we’re in harmony with nature and the seasons, especially through diet, we experience ease and good health. Ayurveda’s universal prescription is to eat a diet according to the seasons. But western society and our modern food system make it difficult for many of us to stay in harmony.
Many people experience imbalance in their bodies to some degree. When there’s an imbalance, that’s when it’s important to work with the tastes (as well as other approaches) to bring yourself back into balance and prevent health problems down the road.
If you’re experiencing a vata imbalance, for example, then you’ll want to avoid tastes that aggravate vata (bitter, pungent, and astringent) and consume more tastes that soothe vata (sweet, sour, and salty). The same is true for pitta and kapha imbalances. If you don’t know your dosha constitution or whether or not you have an imbalance, take this quiz to find out.
Just like all things in life, balance is key when it comes to taste. The sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes each play a critical role in our overall health. By maintaining awareness of our state of being and understanding the role that taste plays, we can make healthy choices that will ultimately keep us in balance and make us feel our best.
What’s your current relationship with taste like? Do you notice the different flavors in your food? Do you like to experiment with new tastes or stick to the same ones? Next time you eat a meal, tune into the different flavors of each bite.
Now that you know a little more about the importance of taste, see if you can become more aware of how taste might be impacting your experience within your body. And, of course, don’t forget to savor whatever it is you’re tasting. May you fully experience all the flavors of your life.