Five Flavors – How Traditional Chinese Medicine Looks at Food

By Shihan Mary Bolz
Licensed Acupuncturist
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Master Martial Arts Instructor

In Western nutrition, food is described as containing certain amounts of protein, fat, minerals, vitamins, etc. This information is obtained in a laboratory by analyzing foods, separating them into the component parts and constituents. The nutritional value of a food is a statement of the sum total of its chemical compounds before they enter the body. This may actually not tell you what its effect is once it is metabolized and used by the body.

In the East, food is look at as having certain qualities such as a warming or cooling nature, possessing certain flavors or acting on the human body in a certain way, describing the effect of what is does to the body once it is eaten. This information has been and is obtained by observing the behavior of the body after a food has been eaten. The nutritional value of a food is stated as a set of energetic properties which describe the actions a food has in the human body.

In oriental medicine, the most important category is the energetic temperature of a food. According to Oriental medicine, a food may be hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold in quality. For example, oats, chicken and onions are warming to the body. Barley, rabbit and lettuce are cooling. This does not mean it is a measure of how hot or cold a food is to the taste or in actual temperature in the environment such as being refrigerated or in the oven, or room temperature. The temperature of a food in Eastern thinking is a measure of its effect on the body after it is digested. Simply speaking, does it warm us up or cool us down? A knowledge of the temperatures of foods is intrinsic to all traditional cooking The temperature of a food will also be influenced by the cooking method, as well.

Another important aspect in traditional Eastern nutrition and cooking is the flavor of a food. There are five basic flavors: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, pungent. People often ask, If I crave a certain food does that mean it is good for me? The real answer is yes and no. When a person is out of balanced they develop a craving to correct that imbalance. The craving is accurate in the sense that it tells us that our organs are out of balance, and the craving is a message that stimulates us to rebalance ourselves. However, in our culture we many times quickly give ourselves such a large dose of the remedial flavor that we overwhelm the internal organs and the opposite desired effect is created. A moderate quantity of one flavor benefits its related organ, too much of that flavor will overwhelm and damage it. A little salt, for example, benefits the kidneys, but too much will inhibit its action.

Here is a list of the five main flavors and their affinities to the five elements and to certain internal organs in the human body. Salty: Water element, enters the kidney Sour: Wood element, enters the liver Bitter: Fire element, enters the heart Sweet: Earth element, enters the spleen pungent: Metal element, enters the lung. The flavor of a food can be said to carry the action of a food to a particular organ in the body, as well.

The salty flavor moves inward and downward, drawing the action of a food towards the center and root of the body. Actions of the salty flavor are: it moistens, softens, detoxifies, counteracting the hardening of muscles and glands. It regulates the moisture balance in the body, stimulates digestive function and improves concentration. The salty flavor helps drain excess moisture and also re-moisturizes the body in conditions of dehydration. A little salt improves the quality of the blood, but in excess the salty flavor can stagnate the blood and stress the heart.

The sour flavor stimulates contraction and absorption. It is astringent in quality and is therefore used for leaking and sagging conditions involving loss of body fluids such as sweating, diarrhea, and hemorrhage. It counteracts the effects of fatty food. Sour foods can activate the blood and eliminate stagnation.

The bitter flavor drains and dries. It will improve the appetite, stimulate digestion and draw out dampness and heat. It is used in conditions of cold or deficiency. It acts mostly on the heart but also benefits the upper respiratory tract.

The sweet flavor is the most common and al foods contain sweetness to a degree. The sweet flavor harmonizes all other flavors and forms the center of our diet; mildly stimulate the circulation and nourishing us. Sweet foods are moistening and will benefit dryness. In excess the sweet flavor leads to the formation of phlegm and often heat.

The pungent flavor disperses stagnation and promotes the circulation of energy and blood in the body. It simulates digestion and helps break though mucus. Some hot pungent foods are so extreme that they eventually cool the body. Warm pungent produce longer lasting warming effects and will benefit cold conditions. Cool pungent can be used when heat is present in the body. In excess the pungent flavor will over-stimulate and exhaust Qi and blood.

A balanced diet includes the use of all flavors, with the sweet flavor occupying a central position. We can increase or decrease our intake of a particular flavor according to our needs. Some foods also have a specific therapeutic action.

A food may either supplement a particular bodily substance or function or it may reduce the influence of a pathological condition. It is important to know much more about the Eastern way of viewing nature and food, which is based on the theory of Yin and Yang.

We cannot cover all of that in this column, but this information is food for another way of thinking and viewing our nutrition. Since this is November and Thanksgiving is coming up, I would like to share a recipe for a fabulous pumpkin pie without the use of any white refined sugar, flavorings, or chemicals. It is very delicious. Even the diehard sugar-holics have stated that it was good!

Sugar-free Pumpkin Pie

Basic pie crust: 1 cup of organic whole wheat flour

1 cup of organic brown rice flour

1 cup of organic, unbleached pastry flour cold water

1/2 tsp. real sea salt

1 tsp. of organic toasted sesame seed oil, optional (You don’t need any oil, but if you like the extra flavor of the seeds and a little good quality fat, go ahead.)

Mix the salt and flours. Sprinkle the water on the flour mixture gradually to moisten it until the dough can be kneaded and then rolled out. Bake the crust for 10 minutes at 350F.

Pumpkin mixture: 1 or 2 (depends on the size) Hokkaido Kabocha (Japanese squash-pumpkin) cut, take out seeds, peel off the skin, cut in cubes Cook the kabocha on top of the stove in a stainless steel pan with a pinch of sea salt in enough water to cover, cook until tender. Add 1 cup of brown rice syrup Add cinnamon, nutmeg to taste. Use a mixer or blender, or beat by hand until it is soft like all pumpkin pie filling. Add kuzu as a thickener. Cook on the stove another 10 minutes. Cool the filling about 10 minutes, then pour it in the pie shell. Bake in the oven on 375F until the crust is light drown.

You may put on sliced walnuts or almonds on top the last 10 minutes. Kabocha is naturally sweet and has a lot of flavor compared to pumpkins. Some people don’t need any sweetener; you may try that if you like. You can also add tofu or rice milk or soy milk in the mixture. You will just need more kuzu to make it firm. Don’t be afraid to try this recipe and work with the quantities of ingredients.

Remember to eat in always eat in moderation and get enough exercise, even after that Thanksgiving meal! Chewing your food very well until it tastes sweet will keep you from overindulging and remember to fill your stomach only 80% full. The Japanese have a saying “Hara hachi-bume.” Fill stomach 80%. Have a very wonderful and healthy Thanksgiving!

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