The Five Flavors of Food

Kathleen Macgregor L.Ac.

Chocolate and coffee, salty chips and a char broiled steak. These are some of the most popular foods in America. Why do we crave that chocolate bar or that cup of coffee in the morning? Emotional comfort, yes! But there is also a reason for these cravings found in the energetic imbalances in our bodies.
Health is a state of balance and harmony in body, mind and spirit.
Easy to say but difficult to achieve. Illness, pain and food cravings are signals from the body of disharmony. Traditional Chinese Medicine integrates dietary principles as a foundation for good health and uses them as a tool for treating disharmony.
What are these dietary principles and how can we use them to support good health? Chinese Medicine categorizes food and herbs according to their Five Flavors, their thermal nature, the meridians and organs they effect, the remedial actions they have in our bodies and the directions they move energy.
The Five Element diagnostic system of Chinese Medicine divides the movement of all energy, (or Qi), through life and nature, (including us), into five phases, or elements. These are Earth, Metal, Water, Wood and Fire.
Each element has corresponding characteristics including; the seasons, emotions, colors, odors and flavors.
The flavor of a food or herb corresponds to its action in the body and not always to its taste, or sensation in the mouth. The flavors are; sweet for Earth, pungent for Metal, salty for Water, sour for Wood and bitter for Fire.
The Western diet contains an excess of sweet and salty leading to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. A healthy diet contains a balance of all five flavors in moderation and adjusts according to the individual constitution and the season. Each element maintains balance with a moderate amount of its corresponding flavor, but illness occurs when a flavor is used in excess.
In a healthy person sweet will be the more predominant flavor because it is the primary flavor of most grains, vegetables and fruits. The organs of the Earth element, the Stomach, Spleen and Pancreas are responsible for nourishing the body. The sweet flavor in moderation strengthens energy, relieves pain, improves mood and harmonizes all the elements. Too much sugar causes dampness, excess phlegm and stagnation of energy flow. The digestive system bogs down leading to more serious disease. The flavor of sweet should be accompanied by small amounts of bitter, sour, pungent and salty.
The sour flavor of the Wood element affects the Liver and Gall Bladder organs and meridians. Sour foods include vinegar, chicken, lemon and tomatoes. Sour has an astringent and consolidating effect on the energy of the body. It can control diarrhea and excess perspiration and can benefit a scattered mind.
The bitter flavor corresponds to the Fire element and the Heart. Bitter foods such as rhubarb can have a purgative action and are good for constipation. Bitter removes heat and toxins and is used as an antibiotic and in detoxifying teas such as dandelion and echinacea. Dark chocolate is bitter and a little is good for you.
The salty flavor of the Water element affects the Kidney and Urinary Bladder. The excess use of salt in most processed food is a cause of many illnesses. Salt in the small amounts found in seaweed moistens dryness, counteracts toxins and calms the nerves. In excess it is a purgative and damages kidney energy undermining the Qi of all the elements.
The pungent flavor corresponds to the Lung and Large Intestine meridians and organs. Its dispersing action can be seen when using mint or garlic to break up the mucous of a cold. Its action of circulating Qi and Blood can be seen when using fennel or caraway to treat a stomach ache caused by indigestion.
A meal balanced with all five flavors leaves us feeling more satisfied and discourages overeating. Look for my next article on the properties of food and a balanced diet according to Chinese Medicine.

Kathleen Macgregor is a Five Element Acupuncturist in practice since 1988.
She can be reached at her office in Meiners Oaks. 805-646-6581