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What flavour tells us about food

Flavour and nature

You may not be aware of it, but the flavour of your food can tell you a lot about what’s in it. Our bodies are programmed to sense and react to the chemicals in our food; in fact your taste buds are really just the gateway to the taste sensors in the rest of your body.

There are five primary flavours: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and pungent; in Chinese medicine they each relate to different organ systems and have different actions:

Salty flavours (mineral salts) relate to your kidneys, and soften and descend

Sour flavours (mostly acids) relate to your liver and gather and hold

Bitter flavours (a wide variety of compounds) relate to your heart and dry, descend and can be cooling

Sweet flavours (sugars) relate to your spleen and build, slow and moisten

Pungent flavours (also called Acrid) (sulphurous and amide compounds) relate to your lungs and disperse and move qi

Independent to this, all food also has a hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold nature (yang being hot and yin being cold), and also tend to enter particular channels and organs.

Food and herbs are categorised according to these ideas; for example, mint is acrid and cooling, and enters the Lung and the Liver channels. There are some great applications for this theory. Let’s say you have a head-cold, feel feverish and have a sore throat; imagine the spreading, cooling feeling of mint in your nose and throat. Its properties cool your system, clear your nose and eyes, open your lungs, and move stagnant qi. Its cool nature makes it appropriate for balancing heat symptoms such as sore throat, fever and red eyes.

Cinnamon on the other hand is acrid, sweet and warming and would be better avoided if you had any heat symptoms such as a fever or hot sweats; however if you were unwell and felt cold or even had just been outside on a cold day, cinnamon’s acrid, warm nature could help to disperse the cold. In the winter, a little nutmeg or cinnamon on your porridge will help to give it a more warming quality, and keep you warm longer.

As with everything in Chinese medicine the key is balance. In health you need a bit of all of the five flavours and too much of any will cause an imbalance; you might say for example that too much sugar will make us too slow, build us too much and could congest us. Often when you push something to its extreme, you see a negative effect; for example, too much salt hardens the arteries and too much pungent food disperses your qi.

Modern research in China and the rest of the world is identifying the chemicals in foods and herbal medicine that give them their various effects, such as warming your body, promoting healthy digestion or strengthening your immune system to name but a few functions. Armed with an understanding of flavour and nature, you can intuitively come to know what suits you at any one time. In my next blog post I’ll talk about a few common foodstuffs and their flavours and natures.

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