Exploring the Six Tastes According to Ayurveda: A Key to Optimal Nutrition

Have you ever finished a full plate of food and thought: I’d really like something sweet; just to finish off that meal? Or perhaps you find yourself craving something really specific: like chocolate cake or hot chips. Now you might think this is pretty normal, but craving foods, especially when you’ve got a full belly, is a sign that you’re body is ‘craving’ balanced nutrition.

In this article, I’m going to discuss tastes, foods and nutrition, from an Ayurvedic perspective.

You may have already noticed that a majority of Western foods tend to be sweet or salty. Nearly all processed ‘junk foods’ are sweet or salty with very little other flavours to contribute. Without a variety of flavours in foods, we limit the activation of the full palate of flavours that we can experience and, in doing so, we also limit the variety of nutrients we are consuming.

Introducing the Six Tastes

According to Ayurveda, consuming a variety of tastes in foods helps to satisfy your appetite and also provides your body with the balance of nutrition that you need – without having to rigorously measure grams of food or count calories. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old form of natural medicine originating from India. Ayurveda is often referred to as ‘the science of life’, but I prefer to refer to it as a “philosophy of living”.

“Taste is the key to nutrition. It guides us to what our body needs.”

– Deepak Chopra

In Ayurvedic medicine, foods are used to help balance the five elements in the body: ether, air, fire, water and earth. With this style of nutrition, you can utilise food as your main source of medicine. Each of the six tastes is known to help balance or activate certain parts of the digestive system. And the concept of taste, or ‘rasa’ as it is known in Sanskrit, is divided into six categories:

  • Sweet (Madhura): includes foods like fruits, grains or pastries, they provide satisfaction and nourishment to the body, contributing to its strength and vitality.
  • Sour (Amla): these items, such as lemons, pickles, tamarind and sauerkraut, stimulate the digestive fire and help to increase the absorption of minerals.
  • The salty (Lavana) taste, is present in foods like beetroot, seaweed, celery and salt, it enhances appetite and digestion while also helping to retain moisture in the body.
  • We encounter the tongue-tingling pungent (Katu) taste in spicy foods like chilli, onion, pepper and ginger, which aid digestion, purify the body, and refine our senses.
  • Bitter (Tikta)– flavoured food like green leafy vegetables, cocoa, turmeric and bitter melon are excellent detoxifiers and digestive balancers.
  • Lastly, astringent (Kashaya) foods, such as lentils, green apples and pomegranate, cause a dry sensation in the mouth and encourage nutrient absorption while simultaneously calming our digestion.

A Symphony of Flavours

We can think of these six tastes, or rasa, like the notes in music. When you combine a range of tastes in a meal, it can become a symphony of flavours, providing a more complete and satisfying meal.

Understanding the need for these tastes in our diet is crucial, as they don’t perform solo on your palate, they have been linked to various macro and micronutrients needed by the body. The synergy between these tastes in a meal ensures a complex repertoire of nutrients making each meal no less than a nutritional symphony orchestra! 

Just like you may enjoy a purely instrumental piece of music on its own, a fulfilling ‘meal’ of music becomes more of a sensory experience when there are several other tastes (notes and instruments) to accompany the performance. There is a depth of flavour, a mingling of tastes and a complementary sapor.

Flavour and digestion

Not only do the six tastes provide you with a more complete sensory experience, but they also play a part in how well our digestive system functions. 

Sour and bitter foods, which are often absent in the Western diet, play a role in stimulating our own digestive secretions. They help with the production of our own digestive enzymes and can then enhance the absorption of micronutrients in foods, especially fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. 

For warming the body and enhancing digestion, pungent foods are said to enhance digestive fire or agni. They can be a useful addition to help breakdown of proteins in meals and warm the digestive system.

Sweet foods are known for their building and strengthening qualities. An interesting thing about sweet foods is they tend to activate the tastebuds and increase salivation quickly. In Ayurveda, sweet foods are eaten at the start of a meal to begin digestion rather than at the end.

Salty foods help to increase the appetite and help with the retention of moisture in the body. Added to meals in small quantities, salty foods can help to bring about mineral and fluid balance in the body.

By incorporating all six tastes in our meals, we can ensure optimal nutrient absorption.
– Dr. Vasant D. Lad

The key to the six tastes in food is to have them all present in a balanced quantity so that they naturally support digestion and health.

Hot chips and chocolate cake

When we begin to understand how each one of the six tastes acts in the body, then we can understand how certain foods can influence our health. Let’s take the chocolate cake and hot chips that I mentioned earlier. Now for the cake, we know that the predominant taste is sweet, and sweet foods provide nourishment and strength to the body, and we know with too much sweet food, we can become heavy, lethargic and overweight.

The same goes for the hot chips. For the purpose of this example, lets say the predominant taste of the hot chips is salty. We know that salty foods can increase the appetite. An overly increased appetite can lead to overeating and we end up feeling heavy and lethargic. And we all know that it can be difficult to stop eating salty foods, once you have started, huh?

The Culture of Six Tastes

As contrast, you have probably eaten a meal and been totally satisfied. Perhaps you didn’t feel the need to add something sweet at the end or have something more, just to complete the meal. Chances are, you’ve eaten a meal that has a balance of flavours that are satisfying and nourishing.

You may be wondering how and where I can find these six tastes, especially when Western culture heavily relies on sweet and salty foods. But you needn’t go too far beyond your local international cuisine restaurants to see how the six tastes can be incorporated into meals.

Many oriental cuisines include a range of tastes to stimulate the senses and the appetite. Japanese food often contains rice (sweet), pickles (sour), soy sauce (salty), wasabi (pungent), green leafy vegetables (bitter) and green tea (astringent).

If you have ever eaten at a traditional Indian restaurant, you may have tried a thali plate. This can be viewed as a deconstructed six-tasting platter. A thali plate consists of many small plates containing foods and condiments with several different tastes; you mix and match the components of the thali plate to assemble each mouthful of flavour combinations. 

Similar to the Indian thali plate, Ethiopian food can be a delight to the tenses. An array of small flavourful dishes are prepared with various spices, including garlic, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom and berbere and consumed with injera, delicious fermented pancakes.

Incorporating the Six Tastes into your meals

Ok, let’s get practical with this. The primary key here is to think about your meals as an opportunity to provide nourishment for your body, health, senses and spirit.

Yes, food should be enjoyable, but not in an addictive, craving sense, more of a wholly satisfied and contented way.

So, I’m going to give you some examples of how I include a variety of tastes in everyday foods that I eat, we’ll zhoosh up some simple dishes to make them more tasty and nutritious:

Vegemite on toast

Oh, such an Aussie classic, but leaning very heavy on the sweet (bread) and salty (vegemite) tastes. This is definitely not what I would consider a complete meal, so let’s change it up a little …ahem,  just a little.

Adding more tastes to this Aussie snack will automatically add nutrition and texture. So let’s start with swapping out the vegemite for equally salty but more nutritious miso paste, then add some garlicky hummus (pungent and astringent), cucumber (sweet), sauerkraut (sour) and lettuce greens (bitter).

Lentils with steamed broccoli and sweet potato

Although a meal of lentils and steamed vegetables can be delicious and satisfying, let’s make it more flavourful by adding more tastes and texture.

I would start by adding some cooked quinoa (sweet), some tamari or coconut aminos (salty), a little olive oil (bitter) and some Korean kimchi (sour, pungent and astringent). Yum!

Chickpeas with salad

Salad need not be boring, and it can be a complete meal, too. Let’s dress up a simple lunchtime salad with some flavours and nutritional balance.

To give a simple salad a bit more depth, I suggest adding some leftover roasted pumpkin (sweet), some leftover cooked brown rice (sweet), grated beetroot (bitter and sweet), fresh chopped green beans (astringent), and homemade salad dressing with tahini, lemon juice and freshly grated ginger (astringent, sour, pungent). And let’s top it off with a sprinkling of pepitas (bitter).

So you don’t need to prepare an Indian thali plate or a complex Ethiopian platter to include the six tastes in your meals. And you don’t need to include every one of the six tastes with each meal – experiment with some different foods and see how many you can include in a dish.

Try including as many of the six tastes into your meals and observe how you feel after eating these foods. Do you feel more satisfied? Do you still have a craving for a certain type of food after meals? Let me know how you go, I would love to hear about your experiences.

About The Author

Leonie Satori

Naturopath and Herbalist Leonie is passionate about women’s health, especially perimenopause and all that midlife encompasses for women - anxiety, gut health and hormones. Her holistic and down-to-earth approach to well-being incorporates wisdom from traditional healing practices, including Western herbal medicine and Ayurveda plus over a decade of clinical experience. In her free time, you’ll find Leonie bush-walking, gardening and living life slowly.

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