Think of a well-balanced meal and you’ll probably imagine things like vegetables, protein, and sensible portions. But there is another vital variable: taste.
We naturally want food that tastes good, but learning to choose the right flavor, or combination of flavors, can also improve our health.
In all ancient systems of medicine, flavor plays a pivotal role. The flavor of a food or herb doesn’t exist merely for our pleasure (or disgust): It can also foretell what the food will do inside the body.
Think of the pucker-inducing nature of a lemon. Your liver and gallbladder react with a similar spasm when hit with a sour note. This stimulates bile, which, in turn, helps your body work better at breaking down fats. Greasy, oily, or deep-fried foods notoriously make for a sluggish liver. A squirt of something sour lends this overburdened organ a helpful jolt.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, there are five basic flavors, and each one has an affinity for a particular organ. Sweet goes to the digestive organs (spleen, stomach, and pancreas); salty to the water-bearing organs (kidney and bladder); sour to the detoxifying organs (liver and gallbladder); bitter to the circulatory organ (heart); and pungent (or spicy) to the lungs and large intestine—the assimilation and elimination organs for air and food.
These flavor-organ pairings are based on our body’s physiological reactions to taste and the ways our organs operate. This insight is used as a tool to meet the ultimate goal of Chinese medicine: bringing the body into balance. Along with things like meditation, exercise, and acupuncture, food is one of the most accessible ways to find and keep this balance.
The earliest known mention of the five flavors is found in the oldest available text of Chinese medicine, “The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic.” It states that mindful use of the five flavors can ensure a long, healthy life. However, too much of one taste or not enough of another can result in disease.
For the ancient Chinese, eating the right proportion of flavors is so closely linked to health that they categorized all food according to flavor profile. Some foods, like bananas, are one-note: sweet. But many foods feature two or more flavors—ginseng, for example, is both sweet and bitter. A plum is sweet and sour. One unusual specimen said to contain every flavor is the schizandra berry, known as wu wei zi (five-flavor berry) in Chinese. Today, schizandra is a popular adaptogen because of its ability to stimulate all of the internal organs.
Flavors in Balance
Sweet is considered the most important flavor, but this doesn’t mean Chinese medicine condones a steady diet of doughnuts. Nearly everything that we think of as food—vegetables, grains, and meat—is classified primarily as sweet. Take the time to chew your food thoroughly, and the inherent sweetness will shine through.
To our ancestors, a sweet taste identified safe, easy-to-digest, nourishing foods. And since this flavor is so important to the digestive organs, sweetness predominates our menu.
We naturally crave the comfort of sweetness, but it’s easy to get too much of a good thing. The sweet flavor runs the gamut from bland to sickeningly saccharine. While the subdued sweetness of rice or broccoli supports our digestive organs, the intense sweetness of soda and fruit juice can injure them.
According to the “Inner Classic,” eating too many sweet foods results in “diseases of the flesh,” such as obesity and diabetes.
The other flavors play smaller roles in our diet, yet our bodies need all of them to function properly. However, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription when it comes to taste. While we all have the same basic flavor needs, individual imbalances vary. For example, those with a yang energy deficiency may need more spice in their diet to boost immunity and combat cold or dampness in the body.
When the grounding, nurturing, sweet flavor builds up in the body, pungent herbs such as cayenne pepper, ginger, and mustard can help move things along. That’s why stopped-up conditions, like sinus congestion, constipation, or blood clots, can benefit from a pungent punch.
Contemplating the five flavors isn’t like calorie counting or any other food metric obsession. There is no math involved. Rather, it’s about simple observation: tuning into how you feel, and considering what flavor combinations will put you back on track. There is wisdom in your cravings.
Salt, for example, helps regulate mineral and fluid balance, which also happens to be a major function of the kidneys. That’s why Chinese herbal formulas designed to treat kidney problems are often taken with a little salt. The belief is that the salty flavor works as a vehicle to drive the formula to the desired organ. Salt also helps dissolve hardness. That’s why salty seaweed has long been a treatment for goiters.
Again, just like with sweet, too much salt also harms the body. The quantity of any flavor is always an important consideration, and so is the person tasting it. According to Paul Pitchford, author of “Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition,” salt must be restricted by those with edema, lethargy, and other “damp” conditions.
Time of year also plays a role in determining what combination of flavors will best suit your body. Each taste is matched with a complementary season. Sour is spring, bitter is summer, sweet is midsummer (harvest time), pungent is fall, and salty is winter. If you’re inclined to eat with the seasons, you’ll find that many foods naturally feature the taste of the moment.
With the heat of summer, the sour greens of spring give way to more bitter vegetables. Eating bitter foods helps us stay cool inside and out. In Chinese medicine, bitters are recommended for people who suffer from heat-related symptoms: ulcers, mouth sores, anxiety, and insomnia. Extremely bitter herbs—like wormwood and gentian—are used to treat extremely hot conditions. But less severe symptoms can be treated by eating mildly bitter foods like rapini, dandelion greens, bitter melon, and radicchio.
Food as Medicine
The concept of food as medicine is just beginning to take hold in the modern world, but it has always been a fundamental part of traditional cultures. In ancient Chinese medicine, diet is essential to healing.
“It’s a pillar of Chinese medicine. It’s the key,” said Cindy Mai, owner of a Chinese herbal company called Root & Spring based in Los Angeles. “You don’t wait until you’re sick to do something to take care of your body. You nourish it and you treat it right, and it will stay healthy for you.”
Mai wants to lead people back to this ancient wisdom with comfort food designed to prevent disease. Her vehicle is soup.
“Just like how Americans view chicken noodle soup, the Chinese view herbal soup as healing to the mind, body, and soul,” she said.
Mai sells what could be called ancient soup mixes—various combinations of Chinese herbs that are used to make a rich, therapeutic broth. The mixes are blended with broth and vegetables to promote detoxification, immunity, and other modern health goals, but they’re also meant to taste good. They go back to a time when food and medicine were one.
“If you look at the textbooks of Chinese medicine, these are classic, healing soups that, when cooked and brewed, all their essence comes together,” Mai said.
And it’s not limited to exotic Chinese herbs—widely available Western ingredients like garlic or cilantro have plenty of benefits, she adds.
“When dishes have a strong scent, like those made with fennel, garlic, or cilantro, that tells me they’re going to enliven the spleen and stimulate the appetite. They also refresh the mind,” said Mai.
There’s a whole world of flavors out there, but many of us keep to a narrow window of familiar tastes. Compared to other cultures, many Westerners tend toward a palate that is predominantly sweet and salty. Sour, and particularly bitter, are often missing from the American diet.
If people can learn to include more of these forgotten flavors into their diet, they may see some of their health problems improve, says Mai.
“I’m often asked how to promote bowel movements, proper digestion, and detoxification. It’s because their diets aren’t balanced. They’re getting too much of one or two flavors. Sour foods and bitter foods naturally have these effects on the body,” she said.