The six tastes of Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, there are six tastes that can be found in our diet:
Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent (spicy), Bitter, Astringent
Our taste buds do much more than simply identify tastes. They also unlock the nutritional value of foods and kick-start the digestion process.
Ayurveda identifies that all foods have all five natural elements, but usually only one or two are dominant: Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth
More detail on the 6 tastes
The sweet flavour is made from the elements of earth and water, so it makes sense that it has similar qualities. Like earth, it is heavy and descending and, like water, it’s wet and cold. Sweet is the flavour of love, sharing and compassion.
The sweet taste comes from various naturally occurring sugars, so this is the flavour of energy. Many carbohydrates, fats and proteins are considered sweet and their potential energy is measured in kilojoules. Foods and herbs with the sweet flavour are considered to be tonics as they nourish us: licorice, shatavari and beetroot are all good examples as well as all sweet fruits, root vegetables, mung dal, honey, rice, milk and milk products.
Made from the elements of earth and fire, the sour taste is considered hot and oily but also light. This stimulates digestion and clears dryness through taste buds on the sides of the tongue. Sour, unripe fruits are commonly used as digestive chutneys in India for this reason.
The sour flavour is found in citrus fruits, sour milk products like yoghurt, cheese, and sour cream, and fermented food like sourdough bread, wine, vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce and often alcohol.
Sour foods make the mouth moist and increase the flow of saliva, which helps digestion and awakens emotions.
Made from the water and fire elements, this flavour creates moisture and heat. A grain of salt dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. The use of salt is a good lesson in the importance of dosage. In correct quantities it is vital to our existence and is as essential to our health as water and food.
The salty taste is grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable are known as ‘the salt of the earth’. However, Ayurveda says that excess use impacts the emotions; causing greed and the desire for more flavour.
The pungent flavour is a combination of fire and air, with hot, dry and light qualities. There are no specific receptors on the tongue and we perceive this taste through irritation of tissues and nerve endings. The 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.
Chillies, garlic, onions and spices (black pepper, ginger, cayenne, cardamom) are all good examples here. Such pungent herbs and foods are great for drying excess moisture and mucus, and stimulating metabolism. For example, the essential oils of ginger and black pepper are used for clearing mucus congestion or warming with a heavy cold.
This flavour is created from a combination of space and air elements and has cool, dry and light qualities. The reason that the bitter flavour is found in plants is often attributed to its ability to defend itself; if you taste nasty no one will eat you! The bitter taste receptors are at the back of the tongue and are the body’s way of giving us a last line of defence.
This taste is found in green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, rocket), courgette, aubergine, spices (turmeric, fenugreek, dandelion), coffee, tea and certain fruits (grapefruits, olives, bitter melon).
The bitter taste creates space in the body by draining and drying excess fluids. It is also considered to support daily cleansing processes but too many bitter herbs can literally ‘space you out’ and leave you feeling fearful and anxious. So, like with the salt, it’s all about the right dose for the right person.
This is the driest flavour, made from the earth and air elements and is heavy, cold and dry. This flavour makes your whole mouth contract and draws the mucus membranes closer together. Try chewing on a cranberry or unripe banana!
The astringent flavour is found in plant compounds known as tannins. They are especially soluble in water; hence the drying nature of a strong cup of tea left to steep for too long. Other examples include legumes (beans and lentils), some fruits (cranberries, pomegranates, pears, dried fruit), vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus, turnip), grains (rye, buckwheat, quinoa), spices (turmeric, marjoram), coffee, tea, dry crackers, and some raw vegetables and fruit skins
This taste helps support wound repairing and where there is excess fluid or swelling in the body.
The 6 tastes from a modern nutritional perspective
Understanding the 6 tastes also helps explain why some herbs and foods have so many therapeutic effects. The more tastes one food has, the more effects. In this light we can understand why garlic (all but the sour taste) and Triphala (all but the salty taste) are such panaceas.
From a modern nutritional perspective, the 6 tastes satisfy each of the major dietary building blocks. Sweet foods, for example, are rich in fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and water, whereas Bitter and Astringent foods are high in vitamins and minerals. Our brain sends the body signals when it requires energy in the form of food. By incorporating all the 6 tastes into each meal, we can ensure that these signals are adequately met. This also helps reduce food cravings or the over-consumption of certain foods.
You can compare how you feel two hours after eating a balanced, varied meal with how you feel after eating a bowl of pasta with plain tomato sauce. It’s likely you’ll be thinking about a snack after the latter.
Including the 6 tastes in each meal doesn’t need to be a daunting task. Adding a squeeze of lemon to cooked dishes, for example, can quickly satisfy the sour taste, while adding a side salad fulfils the bitter and astringent tastes. Enjoying a wide variety of herbal, as well as green and black tea, can also help fulfil our requirements for the 6 tastes. Much of the wisdom of Ayurvedic nutrition literally rests on the tip of our tongues, so enjoy tuning into this inner wisdom.
Balancing the doshas
The 6 tastes help balance our doshas through what we eat. 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 oats, root vegetables and rice, as they keep us strong.
Temperature (hot or cold)
Each taste also affects the temperature of the body, either 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 defines the qualities of whether a food is light or heavy to digest or wet or dry on the mucus membranes. Black pepper is spicy, 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)
Remarkably, tastes have an affinity for certain parts of the body. Garlic goes to our lungs as we can smell it on our (and other people’s) breath. Ginger has multiple ‘sites’, clearing mucus from the lungs, warming the skin, invigorating the blood and relaxing the muscles. Asparagus is renowned for making urine smell – Ayurveda knows asparagus is a bitter, cooling food that clears internal heat via the urinary system.
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Balancing doshas with flavours:
Balancing: Sweet, Sour, Salty
Not-so balancing: Bitter, Pungent, Astringent
Balancing: Sweet, Bitter, Astringent
•Not-so balancing: Sour, Salty, Pungent
• Balancing: Pungent, Bitter, Astringent
• Not-so balancing: Sweet, Sour, Salty
Author: Jo Webber
Head of Herbal Education
As a B.Sc. qualified Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher, Jo is passionate about bringing these two ancient sciences together to help people feel empowered about their health. Jo has put her post-graduate certificate in education to good use, co-founding the Ayurveda academy to help others learn of the wonders of Ayurveda. Jo has also earned a Masters degree in human sciences from Oxford University and has taught in several schools
B.Sc. qualified Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher
Years of experience:
20 years as a Hatha yoga teacher/ayurvedic practitioner
Member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association