The Five Flavors of Food in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The five flavors of food – salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter – hold significant meaning and therapeutic value in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In TCM, food not only nourishes but also has the power to heal the body. Both foods and medicinal herbs can be classified to the five flavors, which are considered to be one of the the oldest systems of food classification.[1]

The five flavors in TCM do not always directly relate to the Western concept of flavor. The TCM descriptions of flavor also include the effects the food can have on the body beyond just the taste.

Salty Flavor

The salty flavor has a yin nourishing, cooling, and moistening effect on the body. It supports the vitality of the kidney system, promoting urination and bowel movements. This flavor also dissolves congestion and softens hard nodules or phlegm. 

Foods with salty flavor

In addition to salt itself, seaweed, oysters, pork, and duck are also classified as salty.[1,2]

Sweet Flavor

Sweet is classified as a yang flavor to warm and strengthen the body from deficiency or weakness. However, sweet foods also have a yin aspect to moisten, increase fluids in the tissues, and relax the body.[2] This flavor nourishes the spleen system and the qi of the body to increase energy. 

Food with sweet flavor

Rice, wheat, chicken, beef, and potatoes are traditional examples of a sweet characteristic. [1]

Sour Flavor

The sour flavor is known for it’s astringing qualities, cooling effects, as well as the ability to promote the creation of fluids. It is associated with the liver system serving to break down greasy food and heavy proteins and dredge the spirit of heavy emotions.[2]

Foods with sour flavor

Along with many fruit and pickled products, adzuki beans, tomatoes, leeks, and cheese are classified as sour.[2]

Spicy Flavor

Spicy (also referred to as acrid) is a very yang flavor that moves, loosens, disperses, and invigorates the qi of the body. It is most active in the lung system to induce sweat and release external pathogens from the body such as a cold or flu. 

Foods with spicy flavor

Cinnamon, ginger, garlic, onions, radishes, and watercress are some traditional examples of the spicy flavor.[1]

Bitter Flavor

This final flavor is yin in nature and has a cooling effect in the body. It has a strong drying and draining function for excessive accumulation of dampness, phlegm, and fluids. [1,2] Bitterness also has a strong descending action to encourage digestive function and bowel movement. Lastly, this flavor is often used to combat inflammation and infection in the body. 

Foods with bitter flavor

Some examples of bitter foods are alfalfa, dandelion leaf, turnips, and lettuce.[1,2]

Effect of Food Flavors from TCM Perspective

In TCM, these five flavors help to bring the body into balance and harmony. All five flavors should be incorporated into the diet based on your constitution or specific condition. For example, if you have recently caught a cold, adding spicy ginger root into your tea may help your body. During the recovery phase of a cold, when your body feels tired and weak, preparing chicken and rice (sweet category) is an effective way to replenish the body. While these flavors have amazing benefits, eating them in excess can throw the body out of balance. Every flavor should be taken in moderation.

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References

  1. Kastner Jr. Chinese nutrition therapy : dietetics in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). 2nd ed. Stuttgart ; New York: Thieme; 2009.
  2. Pitchford P. Healing with whole foods : Asian traditions and modern nutrition. 3rd ed. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books; 2002.