Taste, or rasa in Ayurveda, is one of the most important ways we can influence our mind and body balance. In Ayurveda, taste is a much more important concept than we assume in the West. The six tastes in Ayurveda can powerfully influence our doshas by either increasing or balancing them, so it is crucial to use them properly to maintain good health.
Every substance in the world has a taste attribute, which manifests when it contacts our tongues. Depending on how you grow, harvest, cook, or prepare a substance, it could have a different taste. The sweet, salty, sour, butter, pungent, and astringent tastes can combine in hundreds of ways to influence our physiological and mental state.
In this post, we will focus on the first order effects of the six tastes in Ayurveda as well as how to apply the six tastes within an Ayurvedic diet.
What are the 6 tastes in Ayurveda?
According to Ayurveda, each substance (whether a rock or a vegetable) is made of a unique combination of the five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. The most prominent two elements give rise to a substance’s primary taste and associated qualities. These attributes can impact both our mind and body.
The Sanskrit sloka lists the six tastes and their energetic impact. There are six primary tastes, known as shad rasa: sweet (madhura), sour (amla), salt (lavana), bitter (tilkta), pungent (katu), and astringent (kashaya). These are listed in decreasing order of energetic (for our purposes read as calorific) impact on the body. It is logical that the sweet taste, which includes most carbs, proteins and fats, constitutes the bulk of the Ayurvedic diet and has the highest impact. The astringent taste has the lowest energetic impact.
It’s important to note that a food’s taste according to Ayurveda may not always align with the way you’re used to describing its taste in the West. Vanilla ice cream is certainly dominated by the sweet taste, but ghee or the spice fennel are also described as having a sweet taste.
Different foods have different proportions and combinations of the six tastes. The six primary tastes can also give rise to sixty three other combinations of tastes, which are outside the scope of our discussion.
Let’s review the characteristics of each taste.
Sweet Taste in Ayurveda (madhura)
The sweet taste is predominantly made of water and earth, so it takes on their attributes. Just like water and earth, it is heavy and slow to digest. Similarly, it is cool in potency, oily, acts like a lubricant, and helps eliminate body waste.
As it relates to the mind, the sweet taste is associated with the emotions of desire, contentment, and comfort. It is no wonder why we look for comfort cookies in our lives!
The sweet taste balances vata and pitta and increases kapha. It is good for the young, aged, wounded, and depleted. It has the potential to increase strength in our body tissues and sense organs.
Consuming too much of the sweet taste is associated with diseases like obesity, asthma, diabetes, enlargements of glands, coughs, and cancer. Behaviorally, it may lead to attachment and greed.
As we discussed above, the sweet taste provides the highest energetic value in our food. We can derive the sweet taste from a variety of sources, which include carbs, fats and proteins. You can find the sweet taste in various grains, dairy, meats, nuts, root vegetables, ghee, coconut oil, and sesame oil.
Sour Taste in Ayurveda (amla)
The sour taste is predominantly made of fire and earth, and it takes on their attributes. For example, it is hot in potency, stimulates digestive fire, is good for the heart, and increases nutrient absorption. It causes salivation, moistens the body, and can cause tingling in the teeth.
As it relates to the mind, the sour taste sharpens our senses and is associated with discrimination, good judgement, and enthusiasm.
The sour taste balances vata and increases pitta and kapha.
Having too much of the sour taste may weaken and loosen the body, impact vision, and cause itching and swelling. Behaviorally, it may lead to envy and jealousy.
We can get the sour taste from foods like yogurt, buttermilk, sour or unripe fruits, tomatoes, beer, and wine.
Salty Taste in Ayurveda (lavana)
The salty taste is predominantly made of water and fire, and it takes on their attributes. It is mildly hot in potency, causing a burning sensation in our cheeks and throat. It penetrates, lubricates, and removes stiffness.
As it relates to the mind, the salty taste is associated with enthusiasm and courage.
The salty taste balances vata and increases pitta and kapha. It also reduces the effect of other tastes—no wonder that salty and sweet tastes dominate our snack industry!
Excess salty taste may cause baldness, skin wrinkles, or cellulitis. It is bad for eyes, teeth, and can cause blood diseases. Its behavioral implications include irritability and addiction.
The salty taste can come from salts of different kinds, including pink salt, rock salt, and black salt. (In Ayurveda, different salts are used for different purposes). You can also get the salty taste from the food that we eat, like salted meats or seaweed.
Bitter Taste in Ayurveda (tikta)
The bitter taste is predominantly made of space and air, and it takes on their attributes. It causes salivation and tingling in teeth. It is rough, cool in potency and has a drying effect on fat, bone marrow, and feces. The bitter taste helps trigger appetite, removes worms, cleanses the throat, and relieves fever, nausea, skin diseases, thirst, diabetes, and obesity.
As it relates to the mind, the bitter taste is associated with detachment,clarity, and a sharp intelligence.
Bitter taste balances pitta and kapha and increases vata.
In Ayurveda, an excess of the bitter taste weakens tissues, causes roughness and dryness in mouth, fainting and is associated with rheumatism. Its behavioral implications include grief and loneliness.
The bitter taste can be found in green leafy vegetables like neem, kale, celery, dandelion, coriander, cilantro, coffee, and chocolate.
Pungent Taste in Ayurveda (katu)
The pungent taste, or katu, is predominantly made of fire and air and takes on their attributes. It is rough, drying and hot in potency. It causes irritation in the eyes and nose and has a burning sensation on the tip of your tongue. It helps fight throat and skin diseases, ulcers, cold, and obesity. It also dilates and opens up channels and stimulates metabolism and toxin removal.
As it relates to the mind, the pungent taste is associated with excitement, passion, and concentration.
The pungent taste balances kapha and increases vata and pitta.
In Ayurveda, excess pungent taste can cause fainting, thirst, tremors, and decrease strength and virility. Its behavioral implications include anger and impatience.
Astringent Taste in Ayurveda (kashaya)
The astringent taste is predominantly made of earth and air and takes on their attributes. It is rough, cool in potency, drying, causes salivation and tingling in teeth. It has the quality of numbing the tongue and reducing perception of taste.
The astringent taste cleanses blood, shrinks and heals tumors and ulcers, strengthens bones, and creates supple skin. It is used in toxin removal since it helps in digestion of undigested food.
As it relates to the mind, it is associated with groundness and stability.
The astringent taste balances pitta & kapha and increases vata.
Excess pungent taste causes indigestion, constipation, dryness, blockage of channels, and flatulence. Its negative behavioral implications include the feeling of fear, confinement and mental confusion.
The astringent taste can be found in lentils, dried beans, cabbage, horseradish, tart apples, honey, pomegranates, parsley, and cinnamon.
The 6 tastes from a nutritional perspective
In Ayurveda, we speak of six tastes rather than the six major classes of nutrients, like carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Ayurveda focuses on the signaling effects of the tastes on both the brain and the gut in order to achieve a balanced body. It teaches us to create meals which create a harmonious balance of the six tastes.
From a nutritional perspective, the sweet taste is associated with proteins, carbs, fats, and water. The sour taste is associated with mineral salts, which are generally found in unripe fruits or as a result of fermentation and acidity. The bitter, pungent and astringent tastes are contained in most of our minerals and vitamins.
In addition, spices form an entire spectrum of six tastes. A spice like fennel can have a sweet taste. They are used in various combinations to alter tastes and basically serve as immunomodulators.
The relationship between tastes (both on our tongues and through our trigeminal nerves) and our physiology, psychology and disease is an active area of research.
How to use the 6 tastes during the course of a day
Here is an example of how you can use the 6 tastes in meals throughout the day if you have a balanced vata-pitta constitution.
Breakfast at 7 am
Coffee with cacao (bitter), cinnamon (astringent), milk and sugar (sweet)
After a 30 minute gap a boiled egg (sweet) with pepper (pungent) and salt (salty)
Soaked almonds (sweet)
Lunch at noon
Yellow lentil daal (astringent) with tadka of red chilies (pungent), fenugreek seeds and cilantro (bitter), salt, and lemons (sour).
A side of yogurt (sour), optionally with a bit of sugar (sweet).
Whole wheat roti (sweet).
Dinner at 6 pm
Palak paneer (palak is pungent, paneer is sweet) with red chilies (pungent). Seasoned with garlic (astringent), salt (salty), and lemon (sour).
Daal (astringent) garnished with cilantro and fenugreek (bitter)
Basmati rice (sweet).
Ripe mango for dessert (sweet).
How to use the 6 tastes to balance your doshas
Both the six tastes and our doshas are formed by the five basic elements, which have twenty qualities. That’s why we can use taste to influence our doshas.
In Ayurveda, excess doshas are balanced by using tastes with opposing qualities. A taste balances a dosha if the elements in the taste do not overlap with the elements in the dosha (this is known as vishesha). A taste can increase a dosha if the elements in the taste and the dosha overlap (this is known as samanya).
The sweet, sour, and salty tastes are associated with building and nourishing our bodies. Theother three tastes contain trace elements and micronutrients and play a modulating role. They help us cleanse and remove toxins.
|Vata||Space and Air||Dry, cold,light, subtle, coarse, rough, mobile, clear|
|Pitta||Fire and Water||Slightly oily, hot, light, sharp, mobile, liquid|
|Kapha||Water and Earth||Oily, cold, heavy, soft, slimy, slow/dull, stable|
The earth and water elements are heavy and move downwards. Space, air and fire are light elements and move upwards.
Normally, you should eat balanced meals that contain all six tastes. The nourishing sweet taste will, by default, be generally the dominant taste in a meal. However, if you have a dosha imbalance, you can emphasize some tastes to counter the increase of a particular dosha. Let’s go through some examples.
Balancing excess Vata
Since vata is made up of space and air, you can reduce excess vata by reducing tastes that contain those elements. You can also use a higher proportion of tastes that contain any combination of the other three elements: fire (agni), water (jala), and earth (prithvi). To balance excess vata we can use:
- Sweet, salty or sour tastes
- Selectively use the pungent taste to spark appetite
- Have warm, smooth, oily, and moist food
- For example, you can have the sweet taste in the form of whole grains, dairy, nut milk, or ghee. Try them with different sauces of salts. You can include the pungent taste in the form of mild digestive spices such as ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Balancing excess Pitta
Since pitta is made up of fire and water, you can balance excess pitta by reducing tastes that contain those elements. You can increase tastes which contain combinations of the other three elements: space (akash), air (vayu) and earth (prithvi). Therefore, in order to balance excess pitta we can use:
- Bitter or astringent taste
- Sweet taste to douse excess fire
- Mild, dry, rough, or cool food
- For example, have bitter foods like kale, collard greens, or dandelion root. You can have sweet things like oats, root vegetables, squashes, and ghee. You also also try astringent things like beans and broccoli, and spices like turmeric, coriander, and parsley.
Balancing excess Kapha
Since kapha is made up of water and earth, excess kapha is balanced by reducing tastes containing those elements. You can also use a higher proportion of tastes that contain any combination from the other three elements: space, air, and fire. Therefore in order to balance excess kapha, try using:
- Pungent, bitter, or astringent tastes
- Fasting and reducing excess sleep
- Food that is dry, rough, light, or warm
- For example, have pungent food like mild and strong spices, chillies, peppers, garlic, clove, cumin and cinnamon. Have the astringent taste in foods like beans, cranberry, pomegranate, or dill.
This Sanskrit sloka articulates the impact of the six tastes on the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha.
We can summarize the sloka in this chart to think about how to use tastes to balance your doshas.
|For excess Dosha||Increase use of (+)||Reduce use of (-)|
|Vata||Sweet, Sour, Salty||Bitter, Pungent, Astringent|
|Pitta||Sweet, Bitter, Astringent||Sour, salty, Pungent|
|Kapha||Pungent, Bitter, Astringent||Sweet, Sour, Salty|
Making use of 6 tastes
To use the six tastes well, we have to take our constitution and doshic imbalances into account. These could be the result of many factors, such as age, season, location, lifestyle, cooking method, food combinations, potency, and the second-order effect of post digestive taste.
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All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation related activity.