The Energetic and Therapeutic Functions of Flavors

An elaborated and colorful plate over a table inside a livingrooom

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), flavors are the indicators of the specific therapeutic properties of food and herbs. Each flavor is believed to have energetic properties that interact with the body and influence physiological functions.

A balance of the five flavors is necessary for optimal health. A diet that includes all flavors can prevent imbalances and health problems. That is because flavors sensed by one’s palate often indicate the presence of different nutrients and therapeutic bioactive compounds necessary for the proper functioning of the body.

Table of Contents

The Five Main Flavors of Chinese Medicine

Here are the five primary flavors in TCM and their corresponding characteristics.

Sour (酸, suān)

The sour flavor has a contracting and astringent yin nature: it helps to gather energy inwards. 

It is associated with the Wood element, which is comprised of the Liver yin zang, and the Gallbladder yang fu

Sour flavor has a tendency to stabilize and bind and prevent the loss of body fluids. Sour food and herbs are thought to nourish the Liver and Gallbladder, promote digestion, and prevent fluid leakage of sputum, perspiration, semen, blood, and vaginal fluids.

The sour flavor also has the ability to moisturize and soften. For this reason, it is believed to decrease the tightening of ligaments and tendons, which are the tissues connected to the Liver in TCM. 

Tannins and organic acids such as malic, citric, and ascorbic acids are the two gorups of bioactive compounds often present in sour-flavored food and herbs. Halloysite, alum, and oxycalcite are also classified as sour tasting minerals.

Foods and herbs of sour flavor:

Lemon	
Wine	
Umeboshi
Raspberry	
Mango	
Rosehip	
Chaenomeles	
Crataegus	
Rubus	
Terminalia chebula	
Schizandra	
Blackberry	
Apple	
Grapefruit	
Sauerkraut	

Apple cider vinegar
Tangerine
Duck meat
Trout 
Cheese
Pineapple
Phaseolus
Pomegranate
Cornus
Rose
Mume
Strawberry
Orange
Tomato
Yogurt

Bitter (苦, kǔ)

The bitter flavor has a drying and dispersing yin nature: it helps to descend energy.

It is associated with the Fire element, which is comprised of the Heart yin zang, and the Small Intestine yang fu.

Bitter clears Heat, drains Dampness, and promotes detoxification. Bitter food and herbs are often used to support Liver and Heart health, reduce inflammation, stimulate appetite and digestion, and promote downward elimination (evacuation and diuresis).

It is often used to treat heat-related conditions like fever and inflammation, and it also has antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic effects. 

Alkaloids, glycosides, and sometimes flavonoids are the main bioactive molecules found in food and herbs of bitter taste. 

Food and herbs of bitter taste: 

Bitter melon
Dandelion greens
Coffee
Rye
Asparagus
Celery
Lettuce
Dandelion
Green tea 
Spinach
Artichoke
Turnip
Endive

Black tea
Radish
Cucumber
Watercress
Millet
Coffee
Dry tangerine peel
Andrographis
Belamcanda
Arugula
Dictamnus
Gardenia
Gentiana

Sweet (甘, gān)

The sweet flavor has a toning and harmonizing yang nature: it helps to ascend energy.

Sweet is associated with the Earth element, which is comprised of the Spleen yin zang (Chinese gut), and the Stomach yang fu

Sweet foods nourish the body, calm the mind, strengthen the digestive system, enhance energy, promote healthy body fluids, and promote overall balance. 

Carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, amino acids, and vitamins are the nutrients that are usually found in sweet-flavored food and herbs. They are the foundational elements necessary for maintaining normal anatomical structure and achieving optimal physiological function.

Foods and herbs of sweet flavor:

Cereals
Legumes
Tubers
Fruits
Seed oils
Red meat
Fish
Vanilla

Dairy products
Honey
Grains
Sweet fruits
Potatoes
Broccoli
Carrots
Pumpkin

Spicy/Pungent (辛, xīn)

The spicy or pungent flavor has a dispersing and circulating yang nature: it helps to ascend and externalize energy. 

It is associated with the Metal element, which is comprised of the Lung yin zang, and the Large intestine yang fu

Spicy flavor promotes sweating, invigorates circulation, and resolves stagnation due to its dispersing and moving properties associated with the presence of volatile oils. 

Spicy food and herbs are often used to relieve congestion, warm the body, and promote the movement of qi (energy) and blood.

Pungent herbs are often used to treat conditions like colds and congestion. They induce diaphoresis, regulate digestive functions and promote blood circulation.

Foods and herbs of pungent taste:

Ginger
Garlic
Onions
Citrus
Cyperus
Lindera
Saussurea
Magnolia bark
Pogostemon
Ephedra
Tangerine skin
Mint
Black pepper
Garlic

Radish
Celery
Cucumber
Cress
Turnip
Eggplant
Daikon
Ginger
Cinnamon
Parsley
Onion
Leek
Cloves
Chili

Salty (咸, xián)

The salty flavor has a softening and purgative yin nature: it helps to descend and internalize energy. 

It is associated with the Water element which is comprised of the Kidney yin zang, and the Bladder yang fu

Salty flavor softens hard masses, promotes bowel movements, and dissolves accumulations. Salty foods, herbal and animal parts, as well as minerals, are often used to regulate fluid balance, soften masses, and promote Kidney health.

Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other inorganic salts are the compounds commonly present in food and herbs of salty flavor. 

Salty flavor is often used to harmonize the intestines in cases of constipation due to its hydrating, detoxing, and lubricating effects in the body. 

Salty-flavored food and medicines:

Crab
Octopus
Seaweed
Salt
Shoyu
Squid
Oyster
Prawn
Mussel
Fish
Egg (yolk)
Duck

Sea vegetables
Miso
Soy sauce
Deer antler
Gecko
Placenta
Sea horse
Turtle shell
Tortoise shell
Mantis
Pork
Barley

The Flavors of Foods and Herbs

According to TCM’s classification, foods as well as herbs sometimes have more than one flavor depending on their therapeutic and nutritional qualities. 

A balanced diet should incorporate all five flavors in balanced proportions to support overall health and harmony within the body.

Chinese therapeutic diet consists of using meals as therapeutic means of maintaining or restoring health as necessary. In the presence of illnesses, knowledge about the energetic and therapeutic qualities of the different flavors can be applied along with conventional or traditional therapies in order to promote a faster recovery. 

An appropriate meal must match one’s body constitution, the time of the day when it’s consumed, and the meteorological condition of the season. 

The Flavors and The Seasons

During the spring, our diet should be aimed at increasing qi on the surface, in summer it should keep the cooling force in the body, in autumn it should moisten the body and send qi downwards, and in winter it should keep the body warm.

During the spring the consumption of acidic foods should increase; in summer the bitter foods should increase; in autumn the spicy foods should increase; and in winter the salty-flavored foods should predominate.

Eating the vegetables of the season is not overlooked in the Chinese system. With an appropriate elaboration, it is possible to include the missing flavors by creating a dish with dry spices and herbs, as well as fermented and sprouted ingredients. 

Takeaway

Incorporating the five flavors into everyday meals can help promote health and balance in the body. By understanding the flavors in TCM and their effects on the body’s energy, you can make balanced choices about the foods you eat and how you prepare them.

Talk to a TCM practitioner for more information about incorporating TCM principles into your diet.

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