The Importance of Bitter and Astringent Tastes for Balanced Nutrition

Ayurvedic medicine describes six rasas, or types of taste. Taste applies not only to the perception of taste buds located on the tongue, but to the final reaction of food in the acid medium of the stomach. The taste in the mouth is called svadu and the taste in the stomach is called paka. For example, ayurveda classifies wheat bread as sweet, even though the taste in the mouth is not sweet as we know it. Its reaction in the stomach makes it sweet.

The six tastes (rasas) are:

  1. Madhura — sweet
  2. Amla — sour
  3. Lavana — salty
  4. Katu — hot
  5. Tikta — bitter
  6. Kashai — astringent

The six tastes should be balanced in the diet for optimum health and nutrition. The ayurvedic principle of the six tastes is key in the science of ayurvedic herbal formulation as well.

People who need to balance Pitta and Kapha generally need to eat more bitter and astringent foods. Ayurvedic churnas, or spice mixes, are convenient ways to incorporate these tastes into the diet. The American diet tends to consist of predominantly the sweet and sour tastes.

The sweet taste includes food with wheat products such as bread, cereal and pasta; rice; milk; ice cream and desserts. The sour taste includes food made from tomato products, ketchup, spicy Mexican sauce, pasta sauce, cheese, and citrus fruits and drinks. Too much tomato, Mexican hot sauce, cheese and citrus all increase heat in the body. These sour food items should be reduced in quantity, or preferably avoided, by people who have hyperacidity or other signs of a Pitta imbalance.

Internally, the bitter taste helps to balance Pitta and Kapha. It decreases water retention and is used as a tonic for a congested liver. It is cleansing and helps to take away burning and itching sensations. In excess it can aggravate Vata and dehydrate the body. The astringent taste internally purifies the blood and helps balance Pitta and Kapha. In excess, it creates gas and constipation.

The following are examples of foods and spices for the bitter and astringent tastes:

Bitter Taste:

  • bitter melon and gourd
  • Japanese eggplant
  • turmeric
  • fenugreek seeds
  • leafy greens
  • barley
  • basil
  • nettle
  • jicama
  • lettuce
  • aloe vera

Astringent Taste:

  • apple
  • pomegranate (tastes sour on the tongue but is both astringent and bitter)
  • pear
  • quinoa
  • legumes
  • tofu
  • sprouts
  • beans
  • lentils

Try to include some of these foods in your daily diet. An easy way to get the bitter taste is to add fenugreek seeds to your foods as they are cooking. One teaspoon of fenugreek seeds per day is a great way to get more of the bitter balancing taste. You can sauté them in ghee and then add to your vegetables or add a teaspoon right into the cooking pot of a stew or bean dish. Turmeric is both bitter and astringent. It is considered a blood purifier and an antioxidant. One teaspoon a day cooked with your meals is an excellent and inexpensive health habit that would be a great way to increase your antioxidant intake.

Pomegranates taste sour, but are both astringent and bitter and do not aggravate Pitta. According to ayurvedic texts, pomegranate is considered a Pitta-balancing fruit and a wonderful heart tonic. Pure pomegranate juice can be purchased at health food stores. Pomegranate seeds can be made into a delicious relish or chutney. This can be eaten daily, especially during summer when Pitta dosha gets out of balance.

Aloe vera juice is good for everyone, but it is especially beneficial for those suffering from Pitta imbalances. It is good for digestion and elimination. It cleanses and refreshes the system. Spices are certainly a quick, convenient and flavorful way of incorporating the more unusual bitter and astringent tastes into your daily diet, but with a little effort and creativity you can get those tastes from many other foods as well.

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The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.