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Ayurveda's Six Tastes and Five Elements

The first thing I notice when I put together the infographic for the six tastes in Ayurveda is that the only way to get the qualities of the Ether Element into our diet is via the bitter taste (tikta rasa).

Many of us have heard about the rainbow diet (eating all the colours) as a way of ensuring a balanced intake of nutrients and providing the sort of variety in our diet that eliminates excessive over-eating of singular foods, often encouraging consumption of less popular but very nutritious foods such as legumes and a wide variety of vegetables and weeding out faddy dieting that singles out a particular benefit and, eventually, leads to imbalance through excess of a particular group of foods and a deficiency of avoided foods and their benefits (such as fats, proteins, carbs etc). Ayurveda has similar advice, asking us to eat from every single element (and ensuring we get all the qualities of each taste) within each and every meal.

Getting the Ether Element into the diet and into the body via the bitter taste is an often missed piece of the diet puzzle. The bitter taste comes from foods such as green leafy vegetables and green juices, turmeric, rhubarb, dandelion, fenugreek, aloe vera, coffee, barley. Immediately we can see a couple of foods that have made it onto the list of popular health remedies. Many other herbal remedies that are considered detoxing and cleansing and liver supporting work via their bitter taste (milk thistle, dandelion and burdock, turmeric, artichoke).

In Ayurveda the benefits of including the bitter taste in our diet is drying out excess mucous and clearing away toxins from the blood plus encouraging the flow of bile. Bitter foods are also amapachana (helping clear the symptoms of poor digestive strength) and help to reduce excess weight. In Ayurvedic terms the bitter taste helps clear Kapha and Pitta dosha/faults. This means that it helps clear mucous and congestion and is anti-inflammatory.

Ayurveda recommends that everyone have a little of each element on their plate. When using the different elements as remedies, those who have a predominance of stressed mind and nerves - sweet/sour/salty can be lead tastes. For those with inflammation it can be sweet/bitter/astringent and for those with mucous congestion symptoms it can be pungent/bitter/astringent.

Dosing is important even in foods. If you get too much bitter in your diet (for you - everyone is different regarding how much is too much) you will most likely feel spaced out, jittery and ungrounded. It can also cause excess urination and make you feel anxious if overdone. Long term, if the dietary dose isn't corrected, it will weaken the kidneys and reduce reproductive tissue. With this information it is easy to understand why a food substance, such as (bitter) coffee for instance (or any other that is popularly written about) has the detrimental effects posted over many articles one month and then all the beneficial aspects of drinking this many or that many coffees a day the month after. One article is writing about the benefits and the other article is writing about over-dosing. We may find the same with the very popular turmeric soon. All the beneficial effects are being heralded article after article. But over-dosing of tastes can occur in every food and every taste and because the appropriate dose changes from person to person it is very hard to write 'this food is bad' and 'this food is good' information accurately.

In Ayurveda, information on correcting the strong effects of certain tastes is given. For instance, coffee with cardamom balances the bitter with sweet and eases some of the acidic and jittery side effects while tasting great!

Each taste has its benefits when taken in a way that is right for your body and its deleterious effects when overused. Each body, it is said in Ayurveda, needs a very individual blend of these elemental tastes. Each of our bodies is also genetically programmed towards a certain blend of these tastes from our mothers and fathers before us.

It is our job to listen vigilantly to our bodies requests and communications as we choose our diet and to adjust it accordingly as we find tastes and combinations of tastes that either hurt and hinder or strengthen and revive us. It is unlikely to be just the diet that suits someone else, but rather, something as unique as you. This also can change from youth to mid-life to old age, so it is always worth an occasional review!

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