Taste is one of our six senses that enables us enjoy the many flavors of foods that help nourish our body.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) foods are categorized into five flavors spicy, salty, sour, bitter and sweet.

Each of these flavors corresponds to one of the five elements metal, water, wood, fire and earth. Each of these elements is associated with specific organs . When we are sick or need of some nurturing you can tell what organ may be affected by what you are craving. Hence, in TCM when we eat a variety of flavors we help to balance the function of our organs and health to increase our well-being.

Here we will take a look at the different aspects of each flavor, as summarized by Terri Shultzˡ  While reading see if anything jumps out at you – is there any aspect where you think I could do with some more grounding or do I need to be a bit warmer? Do you need to add any of these flavors to bring in its characteristics or do you need to have less of some flavors?

The Spicy Taste

Spicy corresponds to the metal element, which is related to the lungs and large intestine. It is energetically warm or hot, has a dispersing action, stimulates digestion, and promotes the circulation of blood and Qi (vital energy). Spicy herbs are warming to the body, open the pores, stimulate sweating and help to clear congestion. This is why TCM often suggests adding a little bit of spicy flavors to your cooking in winter can help your immune system to avoid cold and flue. Some examples of spicy herbs are black pepper, cayenne, ginger, garlic and prickly ash.

The Salty Taste

Salty corresponds to the water element, relating to the kidneys, adrenal glands and urinary bladder. The salty taste is energetically cold and has a moistening and softening action. Salty herbs or foods may be used to treat conditions including swollen lymph nodes, cysts and lumps, and constipation. Excess stress can cause a condition known as adrenal exhaustion, and a craving for salt may indicate the adrenals are being depleted. An excess of salt in the diet can cause fluid imbalances, water retention and elevated blood pressure. All types of seaweed are salty, and some herbs with a high mineral content, such as nettles and plantain, are considered to be salty.

The Sour Taste

Sour corresponds to the wood element, relating to the liver and gall bladder. Energetically, sour is cool and dry, and has an astringent action, which dries and tightens tissues. TCM considers the liver to be a dominating organ in regards to our emotions, so when the energy is disordered we may experience a lot of emotional disturbances. Some examples of sour herbs include blackberries, raspberries, orange peel, lemons, and schisandra berries. Sour foods can clam the body such as tomato, kiwifruit and vinegar, Dark vinegar can help unblock liver chi.

The Bitter Taste

Bitter corresponds to the fire element, relating to the heart and small intestine. The bitter taste has a dry and cool energy, and descending, detoxifying and anti-inflammatory actions. Many potent antimicrobial herbs, such as goldenseal and oregon grape root, are bitter. The bitter taste has long been known to stimulate the production of bile, and taking bitters before a meal aids digestion, and also help to lower cholesterol. Since they have a drying action, bitter herbs can be used to treat conditions of excess dampness such as diarrhea and boils or abscesses of the skin. More examples of bitter herbs include dandelion root, gentian, and artichoke leaf.

The Sweet Taste

The sweet taste corresponds to the earth element, relating to the digestive organs of the stomach and spleen. The spleen dominates digestion and when the qi is disordered you can experience bloating, weight issue, fatigue, constipation, poor sleep and edema. This is when you will crave sweets to try and strengthen the spleen. Many children will crave sweets as there spleens are still weak, so a little bit of sweets can be a good thing. Nourishing sweet herbs include cinnamon, jujube dates, ginseng, licorice and marshmallow.

All the flavors are good for us and help us maintain our health and well-being. Overeating one flavor or avoiding another flavor can create an imbalance in the body.

Everything in moderation and balance.


ˡ Tierra, Leslie. Healing with the Herbs of Life. Crossing Press, 2003.