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  • Writer's pictureAmy Malone RN LAc DiplOM

Exploring the 5 Flavors

5 spoons with 5 different spices on each, representing the 5 primary flavors on a black background

I've always advocated a balanced diet. I had worked for years on moderation and making healthy food choices for myself. After learning that I had to remove gluten from my diet at 18, I spent a lot of time learning about nutrition. But one thing that was new to me when I started studying TCM is the specific importance of variety in our flavor profile and that certain flavors can benefit different functions of health.

There are 5 primary flavors and each one is linked to a different element and organ system. Craving different flavors can clue your acupuncturist into which organ systems may have imbalances and the incorporation of specific foods based on their flavors and qualities can have a huge impact on your health.

Let's take a look at how TCM views the traditional 5 flavors. When you understand these relationships, you make choices about your nutrition that improve harmony or limit foods that may aggravate disharmony.

sweet potato balls with sugar to represent the flavor sweet

Sweet - Sweetness belongs to the Spleen and the element earth. The spleen in TCM encompasses the function of the spleen, pancreas, and the transforming and transporting function of digestion. Spleen energy is essential to the proper breakdown of food so that it can be processed further in the intestines and prepared for absorption. Spleen energy improves your feelings of being grounded, keeps your energy level throughout the day, and can play an important role in cognitive and muscular function. In a comparative sense, the spleen in TCM is a part of the enzymatic activity of digestion. If the spleen is weak, there can be bloating with meals, increased gas, not feeling rested after sleep, feeling sluggish or tired throughout the day, being worried often, or overthinking. So does that mean all sweet foods damage the spleen qi? No, not at all. Not all sweets are created equally. Some sweet foods are necessary to promote healthy spleen qi. Some sweet foods are easy to digest and contain important phytonutrients and fiber. Things like sweet potatoes and molasses are great examples of sweet foods that can support spleen qi. From a western nutrition perspective, sweet potatoes are high in fiber, beta carotene, and antioxidants that promote a healthy immune system, and gut and brain function, all aspects driven by spleen qi. Molasses is high in B vitamins, which are essential to digestion and appetite regulation. Highly refined sugars or overeating processed foods, desserts, or high sugar content foods can put pressure on the spleen and lead to dampness or spleen deficiency.

a spoon with pink Himalayan salt on it

Salty - Salty flavors belong to the kidney. When you are craving salt, it may mean you have an energetic kidney deficiency. It is also possible that this is an indicator of electrolyte imbalances or kidney pathology. The kidneys are easily taxed by overworking, excessive partying, working out too much or too often, chronic fear, or stress. Overeating salt in turn can tax the kidney. Be aware, that often, we also crave salt out of boredom or stress. Because of the kidney's role in fluid metabolism and system detoxification, the incorporation of some salt in foods is important for maintaining this balance.

waffles with blueberries and raspberries to represent the flavor sour

Sour - This is the flavor associated with the element wood and the liver. Eating foods that have a sour flavor can help optimize liver functioning. It can also help your perception of stress response. The liver in TCM is responsible for the smooth flow of qi in all the other organs, so if it becomes stagnant, disharmony can develop in other body systems. Liver qi stagnation can also lead to irregularities in a woman's menstrual cycle and can contribute to systemic inflammation. Sour foods also help to astringe fluids and since the liver can be prone to "dryness" in TCM, sour foods help to keep it fluid and functioning optimally. Citrus is the obvious citrus food but other sour foods to think about include raspberries, blueberries, fermented foods, cherries, pistachios, vinegar, and pickled foods.

chunks and shavings of dark chocolate

Bitter - The flavor of the heart...and why we love dark chocolate! Bitter flavors guide energy to the heart and help cool the body down. It's pretty normal to be averse to bitter foods because many poison or toxic substances are bitter, but there are some mildly bitter foods that are really good for you and can help balance out the flavors in your diet so that you include some bitterness. When you feel hot and sticky, or feel your heartbeat pounding, bitter foods can be especially helpful. From a western perspective flavonoids, alkaloids and glycosides are typically bitter and all have a beneficial impact on your circulatory system. Some of the palatable, well liked bitter foods include cacao, coffee, tea, dark greens like mustard and dandelion leaves, parsley, and bitter melon.

Pungent - Pungent or acrid is the flavor connected to the lung. Pungent and acrid foods are important for the movement of blood and fluids. When you think of the lungs, you think of a moist environment, but when too many fluids accumulate, there is mucous and phlegm, pungent foods can help thin and move these fluids. Pungent or acrid foods include things like garlic, ginger, radish, wasabi, onions, and scallions. It is common for acrid/pungent foods to have a strong smell and help improve opening of the sinus passages.

You can use the information above about different flavors to help create a more balanced diet. Next time you see your acupuncturist or TCM herbalist, ask them about which flavors can help your condition.

I'm Amy! I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, registered nurse, and expert in women's health, anxiety, and stress relief.

If you are looking for acupuncture, herbal medicine, or cupping in Denver, Lakewood, or Golden Colorado, get more info here.

**All information and resources found on are based on the opinions, experience, and research of the author unless otherwise noted. All information is intended to educate and motivate readers to make their own health decisions after consulting with their health care provider...even if that provider may be the author ;)

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