MAPI Spotlight: The Importance of Bitter and Astringent Tastes for Balanced Nutrition

The American diet largely ignores the medicinal role of tastes. In this article, you get a much closer look at two distinct and important tastes used to re-balance the body. It is a fascinating subject, and sheds light on the depth and sophistication of knowledge available in Maharishi Ayurveda.

Ayurveda describes six rasas, or six types of taste. But — taste refers not only to the perception of taste buds on the tongue, but also to the final reaction of food in the acid medium of the stomach. The first taste in the mouth is called svadu and the second taste in the stomach is called paka. Here's an example: Maharishi Ayurveda classifies wheat bread as sweet, even though the taste in the mouth is not sweet as we normally think of sweet. Ayurveda classifies this food based on its reaction in the stomach. That's what makes it a "sweet" food.

The six rasas (tastes) are:

  1. madhura — sweet
  2. amla — sour
  3. lavana — salty
  4. katu — hot
  5. tikta — bitter
  6. kashai — astringent

For optimum health and nutrition, the six tastes should be balanced in the diet. This principle of the six tastes also plays a key role in the science of ayurvedic herb formulation as well.

To balance Pitta and Kapha, generally we need to eat more bitter and astringent foods. Ayurvedic churnas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) or spice mixes are inexpensive, convenient ways to incorporate these tastes into the American diet, which is heavy with sweet and sour tastes.

The sweet taste is found in 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 sour, (tomato, Mexican hot sauce, cheese and citrus) and you'll 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, according to the texts of ayurveda.

Internally the bitter taste helps to balance Pitta and Kapha. It decreases water retention and is used as a tonic for a congested liver. The bitter taste is cleansing and helps remove burning and itching sensations. In excess, however, bitter tastes can aggravate Vata and dehydrate the body.

The astringent taste 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:

Astringent Taste:

  • Apple
  • Pomegranate (tastes sour on the tongue but is both astringent and bitter)
  • Pear
  • Quinoa
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • Sprouts
  • Beans
  • Lentils

Include some of these foods in your daily diet. Fenugreek is an easy way to get the bitter taste into your diet. It also adds a delicious soft wood note of flavor. Add the whole 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. This well-researched spice 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.