An Introduction to the 6 Tastes in Ayurveda



Did you know that although chocolate is thought of as a sweet treat, dark chocolate actually is a bitter taste? Bitter taste is an important component of our diet, but one of the least available in our modern Western fare. So maybe you are just craving something ‘bitter’ rather than just chocolate!  Unless you feast daily on bitter gourd, dandelion, or turmeric, you might simply be missing a key element in your diet. Which could explain the craving! Before you run to your kitchen for that last Halloween candy bar, keep reading …

Though nutritional guidelines in Ayurveda are very ‘person specific’, there are some fundamental principles for healthy eating that apply to everyone.

One principle is that a balanced meal should include all 6 tastes of food: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Thus, according to Ayurveda, rather than looking at labels for amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates or calories, simply listen to your body’s innate intelligence.


Each food item is made up of many tastes, but typically one dominates. These tastes are…

The ‘sweet taste’ is present in most of our food. Sugary treats and sweeteners first come to mind, but fruits and grains are also naturally sweet, as are most dairy, legumes, and cooked vegetables. You might be surprised to learn that animal products including meat and eggs have the ‘sweet taste’. Many spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and even garlic are sweet. Sweet helps build our bodies. In moderate amounts, it is not the villain that modern nutrition has made it out to be.The only trouble is that ‘sweet’ makes us salivate, and its satisfying nature makes it easy to overdo! Getting adequate amounts is rarely an issue!

The ‘sour taste’ is found in sour fruits such as grapefruits, lemons, and unripe mangoes and grapes. Tomatoes, chutneys, pickles, vinegar, yogurt, cheese, sour cream and most fermented foods such as miso have the sour taste. Few spices are sour, with the exception of savory and garlic. Small amounts of sour taste stimulate appetite, digestion and elimination.

The ‘salty taste’ is obviously found in sea salt, mineral salt, rock salt, trace minerals, soy sauce, seafood and seaweed. Need I mention that almost every ‘ready-made’ food has salt added to it? Because salt and sugar make things taste good, we have a natural tendency is to consume them in excess. Yet, moderate amounts improve digestion and elimination, maintain mineral balance, and have a calming effect on the nerves.

The ‘pungent taste’ is in what we tend to think of as ‘hot’ or spicy. Most spices, such as chili peppers, cayenne, paprika, and mustard are pungent. Some less obvious pungent herbs include oregano, anise, clove and bay leaves. Ginger, onion, and garlic are pungent, as are some vegetables such as radishes, leeks, mustard greens, parsley, turnip and cabbage. Just like sweet and salty tastes, pungent is another addictive taste we tend to overdo. However, reasonable amounts aid in digestion and detoxification, improve circulation and metabolism, and help reduce muscle pain.

The ‘bitter taste’: if you have answered chocolate for the bitter taste, give yourself an A+! Make that dark chocolate though. Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and dandelion, are bitter, as are radicchio, eggplant and rhubarb. On your spice and herbs rack, reach for turmeric, dill, fenugreek and garlic. Beer, green tea, and coffee are also on the bitter list. Could the increased popularity of fancy coffee and chocolate drinks in the US simply due to a bitter taste deficiency? While neither our tongues, nor our hearts, like bitter in itself, bitter enhances the flavor of other tastes, and is known to be a strong detoxifying, antiseptic agent, and help reduce cravings and urges. Do not make this fact an excuse to reach for another beer!

The ‘astringent taste’ is present in raw vegetables such as sprouts, bell pepper, celery, leafy greens, and cilantro. Astringent fruits include pomegranate, cranberries, and unripe bananas. Most dry legumes, some nuts like hazelnuts and pine nuts, are astringent. Let’s not forget black and green teas, and spices such as coriander, sage, fennel, rosemary, oregano, nutmeg and garlic. Because the astringent taste is drying and makes food difficult to swallow, it is a great one with which to end a meal. Its contracting quality signals to the body that it is finished with the eating process. Try brushing your teeth with fennel toothpaste instead of sweet mint, and notice the difference!


Good Taste, Good Digestion, And Good Health Go Hand-In-Hand In Ayurveda

The effect of taste on digestion is simple. As each piece of food reaches our tongue, tastes allows us not only to identify what we are eating, but also to unlock the nutritive value of food and start the digestive process. With this in mind, imagine how nourishing a pill supplement that gets swallowed whole and bypasses your tongue is going to be, compared to a balanced meal? Mouth-watering dishes stimulate the senses, spark the fire of digestion, and keep it burning efficiently.

Just think of those times when you had a cold, and could not taste or smell. You probably did not have much of an appetite, and your digestion was inefficient. Ayurveda believes that if your food does not taste good, your digestion will eventually weaken, nutrients will fail to be metabolized efficiently, toxins will start to accumulate, and your health may weaken.

Interestingly, most traditional cuisines combine all tastes in virtually every meal. Yet we restrict ourselves to bland diets (think steamed fish and broccoli…every night) in an effort to control our weight. Preparing your food with a variety of herbs and spices is a great way to add taste. It can be as simple as adding a pinch of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and Himalayan salt to your sweet morning oatmeal. Add a tablespoon of raisins and almonds, sip warm green tea with it, and you’ll have a satisfying, flavorful breakfast. For dinner, if you insist on steamed veggies, add a crushed garlic clove, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Yes, conveniently, garlic has all the tastes except for salty!

Here is another bonus: since our brains let us know we require food by signals such as hunger or cravings, including all 6 tastes in each meal may help avoid over-consumption of certain foods, as well as prevent food cravings. If your taste buds are screaming for a certain taste, you’ll go looking for what is missing in the wrong places. Lusting for salt? You may polish a bag of chips. This is why restrictive diets typically do not work and might actually drive the best-intentioned victim to binging or… madness!

Finally, taste also impacts our minds and emotions. In Ayurveda, taste or ‘rasa’ has also been translated as “to feel lively” or “to dance”. I don’t know about you but I have never danced in front of a frozen diet meal! We feed our minds what we feed our bodies. Think of our daily expressions such as “a bitter-sweet moment”, or even the affectionate “sweetheart”. Food undeniably speaks to us through taste.

Taste is an extremely complex subject in Ayurveda. Your own unique constitution, your emotional patterns, as well as environmental fluctuations determine the proportion of tastes you should eat. Right quantities at the right time are an art and a science in Ayurveda. Yet, incorporating a bit of each taste at every meal is a great start. You will find fine-tuning a lot easier as you learn more about yourself and your body’s innate wisdom. Fiery types, for instance, will become aware that too much cayenne pepper or other pungent foods aggravates their already hot natures, while a sweet juicy fruit or a mint tea may help cool them down.

According to Ayurveda, the inherent wisdom of taste is a natural road map towards fulfilling your body’s natural needs.

One of my favorite teachers, Docteur Shresta, once told us: “everything is good, nothing is good. Everything is bad, nothing is bad.” So if a square of dark chocolate sounds good to wrap up dinner tonight, do not feel guilty about the urge. Instead, allow your taste buds to dance as you fulfill your body’s natural needs!

Florence Debout
Sports Massage Physiotherapist
Ayurvedic Lifestyle Counselor
Yoga Teacher

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