The Six Tastes

The Six Tastes photo

Taste impacts what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat. Each plant has a unique taste profile which, when unlocked and understood, will reflect its medicinal capabilities.

Written by Sebastian Pole


The Sanskrit word for taste is rasa, and it is a very pregnant word: as well as meaning taste, it can mean ‘essence’, ‘juice’, ‘sap’, ‘lymphatic fluid’, ‘flavour’ and ‘delicious’. Just saying the word sounds ‘juicy’ … raa-ssa, rasa, RASA. Flavour is the essence of life – it affects everything. Pukka is a word that as well as meaning ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ also means juicy, ripe and ready to eat.

Ayurveda identifies six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (spicy), bitter and astringent, which we will discuss later. Remarkably, how we ‘taste’ life affects our health and mood. If your experience of life is ‘sweet’ you are usually happy, whilst ‘bitter’ episodes are less savoury. Because our taste of life becomes our rasa, our essence, it is helpful to learn how taste affects us.

The effects of taste

Ayurveda states that every substance, including taste, has all of the five natural elements – Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth – within it, but that usually only one or two are dominant. For example, the pungent flavour is dominated by Fire and Air and, like a fire and the wind, is hot, drying and light. In addition to possessing elemental qualities, taste has a number of effects on the body and mind.

Temperature (hot or cold) Each specific taste affects the thermo-regulatory and metabolic qualities in the body (i.e. heating it up or cooling it down). For example, cinnamon is pungent and hot, which raises body temperature; grapes are sweet and cooling, which can help to cool you down.

Quality (heavy or light, wet or dry, penetrating or soft) Taste also defines the qualities of whether a particular herb or food is light or heavy to digest, and wet or dry on the mucus membranes. It also defines if the herb is penetrating or soft. For example, black pepper is spicy and also hot, light, dry and penetrating: it is easy to digest, dries the mucus membranes and penetrates deeply into the tissues. Chew on a peppercorn and these qualities will become clear.

Direction (where the food goes in the body) Tastes also have an affinity for certain parts of the body. We all know that garlic goes to our lungs as we can smell it on our (and other people’s) breath. Asparagus is renowned for making our urine smell – Ayurveda knows asparagus is a bitter and cooling food that clears internal heat via the urinary system. Ginger has multiple ‘sites’, clearing mucus from the lungs, warming the skin, invigorating the blood and relaxing the muscles.

Taste also has an effect on the movement of energy in the body, by influencing the direction that vata (the dosha responsible for movement) travels in. For example, the pungent taste (e.g. in chillies) ascends and spreads energy outwards, causing sweating, whilst the bitter taste (e.g. in coffee) descends, causing energy to move downwards, sometimes with a laxative effect.

Dosha (effect on the constitution) Tastes also influence your dosha. For example, the sweet flavour builds earthy kapha, cools hot pitta and reduces airy vata. As it is a nourishing taste, it increases the volume of all the tissues. Hence, it is no surprise that we live off sweet-tasting foods, like wheat and rice, as they keep us strong.

Sweet (Madhura): The sweet flavour is made from the elements of earth and water. This means that it has the qualities of these two building blocks; ie earth is heavy and descending and, like water, it is wet and cold (when water is subjected to heat it becomes hot but in its ‘primordial’ state it is cold). Sweet is the flavour of love, of sharing and of compassion. We give sweets to friends as an act of sharing and companionship. It is considered the most spiritually sattvic of flavours and is used to heighten experience of clarity and awareness of the spiritual aspect of life.

We all know the sweet flavour. Its main receptors are at the front of the tongue. Sweet comes from sugars; glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose. They are made up of short (mono) and long (poly) chains of saccharides. It is the flavour of energy. Many carbohydrates, fats and proteins are sweet and their potential energy is measured in kilajoules. Foods and herbs with the sweet flavour are considered to be tonics; they build and nourish all seven tissues; Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Beetroot (Beta vulgaris) and Shatavari (Asparagus racemosa) are sweet and nourish the deeper reproductive tissues. The sweet flavour increases ojas and the integrity of the immune system. Many renowned immune tonics have a sweet flavour and are full of immune-modulating saponins and polysaccharides.

Sweet substances and experiences increase fluid-kapha and reduce hot-pitta and nervous-vata. As a demulcent, soft, soothing and wet flavour it reduces some of the dryness and weakness associated with vata. It is a tissue healer and sweet herbs are often used for hastening wound repair (eg Aloe or Licorice). Sweet benefits the mucus membranes lining the mouth, lungs, digestive, urinary and reproductive systems. The sweet taste can help to clear a dry throat and lungs by enhancing expectoration. Its cooling anti-inflammatory tendencies help to remove the intense heat of pitta or ‘-itis’ conditions (eg bronchitis). This is also helped by its softening mild laxative effect. It benefits the complexion, improves hair and nail quality and is the best flavour for a smooth voice. Following the principle of ‘like increases like’ you want to increase your sweet experiences and flavours in life to be truly nourished, loved and cherished. This will create a cycle of ever increasing benevolence.

Used in concentrated excess, such as with refined sugar/pastries/ice creams, it can increase mucus and promote congestion. It can cause toxins, ama, fever, chest and breathing problems, swollen lymph glands, flaccidity, heaviness, worms, fungal infections, obesity, and diabetes. Exceptions to this rule of sweet substances increasing kapha are honey, mung beans and barley; they are actually considered to balance excess moisture.

Sour (Amla): The sour flavour is made from the elements of earth and fire. Its qualities are hot, oily and light. It creates both dampness and heat in the body and mind. It stimulates digestion and clears dryness. Sour foods make the mouth moist and increase the flow of saliva. When taken in excess it draws the tissues inwards and ‘puckers’ the lips, making the body horripilate all over. This contraction creates an emotional reluctance to share things. Eating too much sour flavoured food encourages envy and can make your experience of life feel like ‘sour grapes’.

The sour flavour is found in acids; citric, lactic, malic, oxalic and ascorbic. The receptors for the sour flavour are found on taste buds on the sides of the tongue. The acids have a direct effect on digestion by promoting liver function through various mechanisms; as sour flavours can reduce stomach acid it also means that the liver needs to produce less acid neutralising alkaline fluids. Sour flavours also increase the flow of bile that helps to encourage digestion of fats. Unripe fruits are sour and are commonly used as digestive chutnies in India. Sour fruits such as Amalaki (Emblica officinalis) are high in Vitamin C and are considered to be anti-oxidant, rejuvenating and tonic herbs.

As the sour flavour aggravates pitta and liquifies kapha it is not usually beneficial in hot and damp conditions. It is also considered to vitiate the blood and it is recommended that the sour flavour is avoided in skin diseases. Most fermented foods are sour; fermented yoghurt, sour dough breads, vinegar, pickles and alcohol are sour foods that increase heat and mucus in the body. Sour nourishes all the tissues bar the deepest reproductive tissue (shukra). It alleviates vata and aggravations of the nervous system; it draws scattered energy back in. It is a specific carminative useful to promote digestion whilst also removing gas and indigestion. Amalaki, Lemons and Pomegranate seeds (Punica granatum) are the exception to the rule that the sour flavour aggravates pitta as they actually reduce heat and inflammation.

In excess sour can cause dizziness, thirst, burning sensations, fever, itching, anaemia and skin diseases.

Salty (Lavana): Salt is predominantly made from the water and fire elements. It creates moisture and heat and is heavy and sinking. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening. A sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. It is an easily recognisable flavour and its receptors are at the front of the tongue. Its sinking and heavy effect is very grounding for the nervous system and this encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth’.

The use of salt is a good lesson in the importance of dosage. In correct quantities it is vital to our very existence and is as essential to our health as water and food. It can save life when there is dehydration. In contrast to this a sprinkle too much will cause an ulcer and aggravate stomach acidity. Excess salt consumption also causes water retention with the concomitant results of oedema and High Blood Pressure. This physical holding is reflected in its emotional effects as it causes greed and encourages the desire for more flavour. To repeat the famous Ayurvedic adage, it is all about who is taking how much, of what and when.

Salt is found in minerals and there are different types of salt classified in Ayurveda; rock, sea, black, pink and sonchala. Rock is considered the best as it is very high in minerals and, unlike the other salts, does not cause such water retention and it is not detrimental to the eyes. Salty is the rarest flavour in the Ayurvedic materia medica, not found in many herbs. It is found in Shilajit, a natural mineral rock exudate, full of numerous nourishing minerals. Seaweeds and celery are other examples of the salty flavour.

Salt aggravates pitta and kapha. It also disrupts the blood and is contraindicated in skin diseases as well as bleeding problems. Its use in marinades reflects its softening quality and it is used to soften masses and as a demulcent to liquefy kapha. It alleviates any excess of vata by stimulating the appetite, moistening dryness and nourishing the nervous system. It is a mild laxative at a medium dose (3g) and an emetic at higher dose (5-10g).

In excess it causes ulcers, skin diseases, grey hair, baldness and thirst.

Pungent (Katu): The pungent flavour is a combination of the fire and air elements. Its qualities are hot, dry and light as well as penetrating and ascending. The acrid heat of hot foods and spices spreads throughout the whole system. Too much heat, whether climatic or dietary, is known to cause ‘hot’ emotions ranging from passion and excitement to anger and irritation. It is the most rajasic and volatile of the tastes.

It is primarily found in the aromatic volatile oils, resins, oleo-resins and mustard glycosides. All these compounds are used to stimulate, invigorate, dry and clear the accumulation of wet, stagnant and congestive conditions. The essential oils of Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) are often used for clearing mucus congestion or warming a cold condition. Pungent resins such as Guggul (Commiphora mukul) and Frankincense (Boswellia serrata) also invigorate the flow of blood, scrape out toxins and reduce cholesterol. The aromatic Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is an excellent digestive for encouraging sluggish digestion. Unlike the other tastes it does not have a specific taste bud receptor site but works through irritation of local tissue and nerve endings.

Pungent herbs and foods are a panacea for kapha as they dry the excess moisture and mucus so prevalent in this humour. Pungent herbs are vital for any weight-loss programme as they stimulate the metabolism and reduce fat. They directly cook and burn ama as well as also clearing it via diaphoresis. The heat encourages vasodilation of the pores of the skin and encourages the body to sweat, therefore throwing off unmetabolised toxins through the skin. The pungent flavour usually increases vata but, in moderation, it can also help to remove the cold stiffness of vata whilst also encouraging the elimination of wind and digestive cramps. The heat of pungent herbs irritates pitta and should not usually be used where there is inflammation, especially with aggravation of the plasma (rasa) and blood (rakta) tissues. Its drying effect on bodily fluids can cause constipation.

In excess it creates burning, dizziness, thirst and excessive dryness. Ginger (Zingiberis officinalis) and cooked Garlic (Allium sativum) are the exceptions to the rule that pungent flavours aggravate vata; in fact they benefit it as they increase digestion and reduce intestinal gases.

Bitter (Tikta): This therapeutically priceless taste is created from a combination of space and air elements. Its dominant qualities are cooling, drying and light. It creates space in the body by draining and drying excess fluids. Too many bitter herbs can literally ‘space you out’ and leave you feeling disorientated. Many psychotropics are bitter; eg Psilocybe spp. It has a particular affinity for the blood (rakta). Bitters are usually classified as ‘alteratives’ as they alter the chemical balance of the blood by clearing toxins. As they encourage the flow of bile and the activity of the liver this may account for some of bitter’s detoxifying activity. Too much bitter flavour can weaken the kidneys, cause excess urination and emotionally encourages fear and anxiety. The bitter flavour has a negative effect on the strength of avalambaka kapha and ojas which reside in the heart. Again, it is all about an accurate diagnosis and using an appropriate dose for each individual person.

Whereas in Western herbalism bitters are associated with a tonic effect, in Ayurveda they are considered depleting. The tonic association comes from the low dose, digestive stimulating and liver promoting perspective. The depleting and cleansing view comes from the experience that relatively larger doses of bitter herbs are cooling, reducing, detoxifying, laxative and diuretic. Studying and applying the insights of herbalism is a constant reminder to be specific. Everything is unique; how you apply the medicine, when you apply it, to whom it is applied and where it is administered. Ayurveda clearly teaches that any substance can be a food, a medicine or a poison depending on how much is given, who is eating it, when it is eaten and where it is taken.

The reason that the bitter flavour is found in plants is often attributed to its ability to defend itself; if you taste nasty noone will eat you! The bitter taste receptors are at the back of the tongue; they are the body’s way of giving us a last line of defence. The bitter flavour is found in sesquiterpenes, anthraquinones, alkaloids and some glycosides. Plants with these properties are renowned for their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-pyretic and digestive secretion enhancing activities. These compounds are usually found intermixed with pungent and aromatic or astringent tasting plants; all drying flavours. Neem (Azadiracthta indicia), Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) and Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) are well-known bitters famed for their ability to clear infection, heal skin problems and purify the blood.

Bitter herbs clear kapha and pitta whilst aggravating vata. Excess dampness and heat are reduced as the bitter flavour drains them out of the system. Bitters also promote peristalsis and urination. They are often indicated in lung conditions, especially with infections manifesting with green and sticky mucus. They excel at clearing itching, swelling and oozing on the skin. A little is used as a stimulant to the appetite as the light quality can enhance the appetite and clear the palate. Higher doses are used to kill worms and parasites in the intestines and blood. Bitter herbs also benefit overweight conditions as they can dry and scrape away the adhesions and fatty accumulations.

When misused or incorrectly prescribed they can cause too much dryness and wasting in the body and mind; this can upset the nervous system causing constipation, dizziness, weakness, reduction in semen and dryness of the whole body. Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia) is a bitter herb that is an exception to the above contraindications as, along with the bitter benefits, it is also an aphrodisiac.

Astringent (Kashaya):  Astringent is the driest flavour. Made from a predominance of the earth and air elements it is heavy, cold and dry. As it draws inwards it dries and reduces them. On eating something astringent your whole mouth contracts and draws the mucus membranes closer together. Having too many ‘dry’ and unfulfilling experiences can leave you with a lack of taste for life and even resentful at its lack of zest.

The astringent flavour is found in tannins. These polyphenols are particularly concentrated in the bark, leaves and outer rind of fruits of plants and trees. They appear to offer some form of outer protection by repairing wounds and neutralising bacteria. They are especially soluble in water; hence the drying nature of a strong cup of tea left to steep for too long. Astringency is often found in combination with plants that also taste sweet or sour. Bibhitaki (Terminalia belerica), Haritaki (Terminalia chebula), Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) and Guggul (Commiphora mukul) are especially astringent.

Therapeutically the astringent flavour clears kapha and pitta whilst aggravating vata. It is very useful where there is any leakage of body fluids; bleeding (externally and internally), excessive sweating, enuresis, diarrhoea, excess catarrh, leucorrhoea and premature ejaculation. It holds tissues together and astringent herbs are often used as a wash to help heal wounds. This holding effect also prevents loose and flaccid tissue from accumulating. Using astringent herbs is appropriate to treat sinking problems such as prolapses. Its effect on the digestive system benefits diarrhoea by astringing the bowel and stopping excessive downward flow. This also helps absorption by drawing fluids and nutrients inwards. Astringents are used for pitta inflammations to draw the swelling inwards, cool the heat and also drying any damp suppuration.

These dry, rough and light qualities are similar to vata.  Because astringent tastes contract the tissues and obstruct the flow of prana and nervous energy in the system it is detrimental to vata. In excess it can cause vata diseases like rigidity, pain in the heart, convulsions and retention of gas, urine and faeces.

TASTE (rasa) ELEMENT (tattva) QUALITY (guna) Effect on Dosha
SWEET (madhura)     Earth, Water Heavy, Wet, Cold K+, P-, V-
SOUR  (amla) Earth, Fire Heavy, Wet, Warm K+, P+, V-
SALTY (lavana)  Water, Fire Heavy, Wet, Warm K+, P+, V-

PUNGENT (katuka)

Fire, Air

Light, Dry, Warm K-, P+, V+
BITTER (tikta) Space, Air Light, Dry, Cold K-, P-, V+
ASTRINGENT (kasaya) Air, Earth Dry, Cold K-, P-, V+
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