The 6 Tastes

From Conscious Eating by Dr. Gabriel Cousens, MD:

There are six tastes and food qualities that help to inform us how a food will tend to affect and interact with our doshas. Each taste is nature’s way of signaling us as to how the food will energetically act on our body and mind. The six tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
The sweet taste can be experienced by the varying degrees of sweetness that are in sweet fruit, sugar, milk, rice, and grains. Sweetness increases kapha and decreases pitta and vata. Sweetness has the qualities of being cooling, heavy, and oily. It relieves hunger and thirst and nourishes the body.Because it increases kapha, sweetness increases tissue mass. Sweet is the overwhelmingly predominant and favorite taste in America, creating a kapha imbalance that contributes to the obesity of millions of overweight people.Eating sweets gives satisfaction and a sense of fullness on the mental plane.For those who feel lacking in their lives, sweets can become addicting becausethey supply the short-term illusion of mental and physical satiation. Sweets have a cooling effect on the pitta anger and a temporary calming effect on the vata fear. Too many sweets may contribute to complacency and greed,especially for kaphas, who have a propensity for manifesting that tendency anyway.
The sour taste (lemon and yogurt) unbalances kapha and pitta. The sour qualities are heavy, heating, and oily and therefore balancing for vata. Sour-tasting foods usually improve digestion and appetite. “Sour grapes”is a term that relates to a certain feeling of being deprived, or bitterness about lacking something in life. An overindulgence in sour foods may lead to envy or jealousy about what is lacking. This sourpuss tendency to envy and possess creates an imbalance in pittas. Not only does the sour taste amplify these tendencies, but these tendencies create anger. The greed tendency of kaphas may also be amplified by sour foods. Sour balances vatas by creating mental heat.
The salty taste is heavy and heating.These qualities help to balance vata and unbalance kapha and pitta. Salt increases digestive fire and helps to cleanthe body of wastes. Salt enhances all our appetites for life and physical indulgence in the senses. In excess, it can contribute to unbalancing the mental state of kapha. It reinforces the kapha tendency toward complacency and sense indulgence. The heat of pitta is also aggravated by salt, especially if the desires fired up by the salty food are not expressed. The vata mind,which is sometimes too ungrounded to indulge in the earthly senses, is brought more into balance by salt, in a way that draws awareness to the physical level.
Pungent foods (spicy foods such as ginger and cayenne) are heating,light, and dry. The heating and drying qualities of pungent foods help to balance kapha. Pungent foods aggravate pitta and vata. Pungent foods such as cayenne are good for reducing mucus and stimulating gastric fire in the kapha dosha. The anger and irritability of pitta are aggravated by pungent foods because fire brings out an extroverted energy and a desire for external stimulation. These qualities of pungent foods help kaphas come out oftheir complacency and inertia.
Foods of bitter taste (spinach and other leafy greens) are cooling, light,and dry. Foods of bitter taste balance kapha and pitta but may tend to aggravate vata. Bitter-tasting foods dry and purify secretions and increase appetite, which is perfect for kapha. Bitter foods tend to amplify dissatisfaction, criticism, and grief. Mild dissatisfaction may be a stimulus to change and thus is good for balancing the complacency aspects of kapha. These same qualities of bitterness bring out insecurity and fear in vata because they enhance the tendency to change and also enhance the dry sadness of excessive dis-satisfaction.
Astringent foods make the mouth pucker. Examples are unripe persimmons, turmeric, and okra. Astringent foods are cooling, light, and dry.Because of this, they tend to aggravate vata and balance pitta and kapha. These foods purify and reduce secretions, as well as dry out the body, which is excellent for kapha. Their drying and shrivelling energy creates introverted tendencies. If this withdrawal is excessive, it causes mental contraction that brings out fear and anxiety. This may unbalance the vata mind.This same contraction energy helps to balance the extroverted energies of the pitta personality.
In general, the bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes unbalance vata and decrease kapha. The tastes of bitter, pungent, and astringent have a “light-ness” quality to them, helping to free kaphas from their tendency to be complacently attached to the body and the desires of the material world. Sweet,sour, and salty tastes increase the attachment to the body and worldly desires. Because of this, sweet, sour, and salty tastes decrease vata, as vatas need to increase these attachments because of their lack of groundedness. Perhaps the food industry is aware of this because there is so much emphasis on sweetness and saltiness in most fast foods. Eating these processed, empty, foodless foods feeds the life of the senses.
Pittas are balanced by sweet, bitter, and astringent foods. Pungent, salty,and sour foods unbalance pitta. Vatas are aggravated by excessive amounts of any taste. My experience eating in the homes of Ayurvedic physicians is that they serve meals with all the tastes to create a general balance. The wisdom of eating in a way that maintains one’s own dosha balance requires artful intelligence, intuition, and trial and error concerning what tastes of foods are balancing and when to eat these foods.
Chinese medicine has also systematized the meaning of the tastes of foods. They recognize five flavors (tastes): pungent, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. According to the Chinese system, each taste affects specific organ systems. Pungent foods act on the lungs and large intestine. They also induce perspiration. Sweet-flavored foods act upon the stomach, spleen, and pancreas and neutralize toxins. Bitter foods act upon the heart and small intestine. Bitter foods are also said to reduce fever and induce diarrhea. Sour foods act upon the liver and gallbladder. They also stop diarrhea and perspiration. Salty foods act upon the kidneys and urinary bladder and also soften hard masses and tissues.