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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
The Five Tastes: Balancing Foods for All Seasons

As a long time proponent of a whole foods, plant-based diet and a health counsellor within the principles of macrobiotics, I adore the whole concept of ‘chi’ (energy) as expressed within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The five transformations of energy have always made such sense to me and I love the sense and sensibility it brings to understanding health. The five savoury tastes are the recognized basic tastes that are naturally contained in all foods. Theoretically, each taste nourishes a specific organ or organ system and each taste is correlated with a season, a type of warming or cooling energy, and a specific organ or system.

Practically speaking, the more you consciously include a variety of the five tastes in food preparation, the more satisfying and nutritionally enhanced your meals will be. Sometimes just a small amount of a ‘taste’ can contribute significantly (e.g. a sprig or two of bitter-tasting parsley leaf).

The five tastes are bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and pungent. A food will never contain one exclusive taste; there will always be a predominance of tastes. Here are some examples of food sources and TCM medical organ connections for each taste. It is said that a little of a particular taste can strengthen an organ system, whereas excess can weaken it. Hence, too much sugar weakens our soil energy, stomach/spleen/pancreas and contributes to digestive problems.

BITTER – Associated with the early and mid-summer season, (FIRE) bitter foods are thought to stimulate the heart and small intestine. These foods include dandelion, parsley leaves, mustard greens, collard greens, burdock root, sesame seeds, cereal grain coffee substitute, and some types of corn.

SALTY – Associated with the winter season, (WATER) salty food imparts strength and is thought to influence the kidneys and bladder. These foods include sea vegetables, miso, soy sauce, sea salt, Umeboshi salt plum, and natural brine pickles.

SWEET – Associated with the late summer season, (EARTH) sweet food is thought to influence the pancreas, spleen and stomach – organs of sugar absorption and distribution. Its nourishing effect is centering and relaxing. The sweet taste refers to natural whole foods and not the excessively refined sweet we know from white sugar. Sweet foods make up the largest percentage of our meals. These foods include whole grains, vegetables – especially, cabbages, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, squashes and parsnips as well as chestnuts.

SOUR – Associated with the spring season, (WOOD) sour tasting food has a constrictive effect, giving quickening energy. It is thought to influence the liver and gall bladder. These foods include sourdough bread, vinegar, wheat, sauerkraut and lemon/lime.

PUNGENT – Associated with the autumn season, (METAL) the pungent taste gives off a hot, dispersing energy and is said to be beneficial to the lungs and colon. However, an excess of these foods can irritate the intestines. Pungent foods have been known to stimulate blood circulation and, according to TCM folk medicine, have a natural ability to help break down accumulation in the body. In most culinary cuisines, they are commonly combined with animal protein and with foods high in fat. These foods include scallions, daikon radish (or dried daikon), ginger, peppers, wasabi (dry mustard) and horseradish.

How Foods Fit the Five Tastes

For convenient referencing, the following chart lists some basic foods that fall into each category.

BITTER – Kale, collards, mustard greens, parsley, endive, celery, arugula, grain beverage
SALTY – Sea salt, tamari, miso, sea vegetables, sesame salt, umeboshi plum, pickles
SWEET – Corn, cooked onions, squash, yams, cooked grains, cooked cabbage, carrots, parsnips, fruits
SOUR – Lemon, lime, sauerkraut, umeboshi plum, fermented dishes, pickles
PUNGENT – Ginger, garlic, raw onions, white radish, red radish, scallions, wasabi, spices

While most of your meals will contain a minimum of 60 per cent sweet foods (whole- grains, vegetables, beans and fruit) you can aim for a full range of other tastes with major meals. The other tastes can be represented in side dishes, sauces and condiments, emphasizing a particular taste you may crave. There is a definite art to meal balancing.

The combination possibilities are plentiful with disease fighting nutrients. The underlying principle dictates that these flavours, while seeming antagonistic (not compatible) are actually, by virtue of meal balancing, complementary. Meals that include the five tastes will prove more satisfying, in terms of limiting cravings, and more fortifying.

Tasty Dressings

You can make delicious sauces and dressings and wonderful tasting dips using all natural ingredients that incorporate the five tastes. Toasted sesame tahini, Umeboshi plums, brown rice syrup and barley malt, shoyu, sweet white miso, fresh ginger juice, lemon juice, and tofu, the possibilities are endless. All of these delicious dressings can be used on salads, boiled vegetables, noodles like soba or udon, sea vegetables and many of them can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days and re-used.

Remember it’s all about satisfying the taste buds so you don’t have cravings. If you make your food too salty you will crave sugar. If you constantly eat sugar laced foods your body will crave salt. It’s all about balance. Have fun and create some wonderful tasting dressings and sauces using the five tastes and make your food taste delicious.

Here is a super recipe to try that encompasses the five tastes:

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