At the holidays, the one physical sense that may be able to rival our sight is taste. The holidays are celebrated with food – lots of it, usually with a variety of exotic flavors.
Taste is perhaps the most immediately gratifying sense, and the one that can get us into the most trouble – especially at this time of the year. The paradox of taste is that it also can be a powerful healing tool.
By itself, taste is the least refined of our senses. It relies heavily upon its sibling, smell, to compensate for its undeveloped nature. In fact, flavorists and food chemists point out that about 80 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Taste gets the credit for your gratified palate, but smell delivers most of the experience.
The tongue allows us to experience only four distinct tastes — sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. All other flavors are provided to us by smell. We often hear people complain that they lose their sense of taste when they suffer from a cold or flu, but what they’ve really lost is their sense of smell, which dramatically reduces the ability to appreciate food. Other factors that have little to do directly with taste play a role in our ability to taste food. These include the food’s temperature (whether it’s hot, cold, or warm), texture (crunchy, soft, creamy), and our saliva, which helps to dissolve food and make the taste more accessible.
Taste has saved us much suffering and dying. Evolution has trained us to avoid certain tastes, especially bitter flavor, because it is the most common flavor carried by poisons. Conversely, we prefer sweet foods, which long experience has taught us is associated with nutritious foods, especially those rich in carbohydrates or energy. We also prefer salty flavor because of the presence of sodium, which is essential for proper pH balance. Children have been known to chew leather when necessary to obtain sufficient amounts of sodium.
Sometimes, we find ourselves craving certain tastes or foods, which may reflect nutritional needs. In a two-part article for the New England Journal of Medicine (May26 and June 2, 1983; vol. 308, nos. 21 and 22), Duke University researcher Dr. Susan Schiffman pointed out that even infants will respond to certain foods on the basis of perceived nutritional content.
‘‘It is clear that the ability to identify sodium chloride properly by taste in order to correct salt deficiency is innate,” wrote Dr. Schiffman. “In addition to sodium chloride, specific appetites have been reported for thiamine, calcium, potassium, and sugar in response to nutritional and metabolic imbalances.”
The next time we crave a particular food, we might ask ourselves what specifically we are looking for. Are we looking for a certain taste — sweet or salty; a certain texture — crunchy or luscious? The range of sweet foods runs from squash and fruit to apple pie and banana splits. Protein foods can be beans, fish, or beef. Calcium- and other mineral-rich foods can be leafy greens (collard, kale, or mustard greens, for example), roots, or milk products. What we begin to recognize is that we have choices – some healthier than others.
Beyond meeting certain biological needs, taste is a learned response to food. Parents can predispose their children to obesity, say scientists, by feeding them too many sweet-tasting foods, especially if such foods come as reward for behavior, or when a child is feeling depressed. Children also mimic their parents’ food choices, even when those choices are repulsive to children. For example, Mexican parents often enjoy hot peppers that contain an irritant called capsaicin. These children will choose to eat peppers in great quantities and suffer accordingly, because they associate the peppers with family. Eventually, the children acquire a taste for the hot peppers and even adapt to the capsaicin, but not before the peppers cause considerable pain and indigestion.
Herein lies a health secret: foods that promote health and well-being can be just as enjoyable and satisfying as unhealthy foods, if we are willing to retrain our palate. If a child can be taught to enjoy a food that burns his mouth, adults can learn to enjoy foods that are initially foreign and exotic, especially if the
rewards are increased vitality, better health, and longer life.
THE FOUR TASTES OF OF THE WEST
Ten thousand specialized receptors, called tastebuds, give us the ability to perceive the four basic flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. These tastebuds are located mostly in the tongue, but also in the soft palate and throat. The lifespan of a tastebud is ten to twelve days.
The surface of the tongue, when magnified by a microscope looks like a densely populated forest that’s been cut down to stumps. Thousands of shoots, all closely packed together, form what looks to the naked eye like a flat, slightly irregular surface, These tastebuds do not rest on the surface of the tongue, as many of us believe, but between crevices or pores created by these stumps, which are called papillae. Some papillae are wide (fungi-formed papillae), while others are narrow (filiform papillae). There are 200 to 300 tastebuds surrounding each of the papillae.
The tastebuds themselves are barrel-shaped. At one end of the taste receptor is a small opening, called a taste pore. Here, a tiny hair emerges, called a taste hair. At the other end of the taste-bud is a nerve. When we chew food, saliva mixes with the food particles and dissolves them, making them accessible to the tastebuds. Molecules of food, latent with their own characteristic taste, stimulate the taste hair, which in turn triggers nerve impulses that travel to the taste center in the brain, located in the parietal lobe.
The four tastes are located in specific parts of the tongue: the front of the tongue provides the sweet taste; the sides, near the front, respond to sour taste; further back along the sides of the tongue are located the salty taste receptors; and in the back of the tongue, near its root, are the receptors for bitter taste.
Evolution, it seems, equipped us to recognize sweet flavor first, which made it possible to discern a safe and nutritious food before it got too far into our mouths. This arrangement of tastebuds on the tongue also suggests that we are designed to choose sweet flavor first, above all others.
The Five Tastes Of China
In Chinese medicine, taste is used medicinally to heal specific organs and restore balance to the overall system. Taste is understood within the context of the Chinese Five Element system. According to the Five Elements, the primary flavors are sour, bitter, bitter, sweet, pungent (or spicy), and salty. In moderation, each will enhance and heal specific organs. If all tastes are consumed in moderation, they will create balance and health. Excesses of individual tastes will excite certain organs, while controlling and diminishing the function of others.
In moderation, sour taste will help to heal the liver and gall bladder (the Wood Element) by stimulating circulation in these organs. Sour flavor mov0es and eliminates stagnation and thus enhances liver activity. Sour stimulates blood cleansing, and thus helps to eliminate toxins in the blood. By moving blood and
Qi through the liver, it balances and reduces anger.
In excess, sour will cause constriction and stagnation within the liver, and prevent it from eliminating waste. Stagnation within the liver usually results in liver heat and an excess of emotion, often as outbursts of anger.
Since the Wood Element controls the spleen and stomach (earth) it will diminish the stomach and digestive functions, causing the spleen to become deficient. This may also add to lung imbalances and constipation.
A mildly sour taste has a slight sweetness to it, which is what we are looking for. Mildly sour, with a touch of sweet within it, creates movement and balance in the liver. Excesses of sour flavor cause astringency.
Moderate-amounts of bitter taste strengthen the heart and small intestine (Fire Element). Bitter tastes will improve circulation, nutrient assimilation, and digestion. Bitter is cleansing and stimulating. By enhancing the Fire Element, bitter increases our sense of joy and wonder of life. Since Fire nourishes the Earth Element (spleen and stomach), mild bitter taste enhances digestion and assists the lymph system (spleen).
Excessive bitter taste will overstimulate the heart and small intestine, causing palpitations, racing heart beat, or erratic small intestine function. As the Fire Element becomes excessive, the Metal Element (lungs and large intestine) will be overly controlled, causing a sluggish large intestine and lung function. Shallow breathing, shortness of breath, and constipation can occur. (We see this commonly in everyday life, especially when people are under stress.)
Imbalances in the heart and small intestine can predispose people to hysteria.
Balanced sweet taste strengthens the spleen and stomach (the Earth Element). It enhances digestion — hence its appeal after a meal – and improves mood (creating calm, a sense of well-being, and stability, like the earth). Well-chewed carbohydrates provide a good deal of the sweetness that gently stimulates and strengthens the spleen and stomach.
The spleen mediates many immune cells. It functions best when our food is well chewed and infused with saliva, which makes it slightly alkaline. Excess sweetness and acidity cause an acid-rich environment in the stomach, which in turn causes imbalances in both the stomach and spleen. The result is
heartburn, gas, and stomach disorders.
Since the spleen nourishes the large intestine and lungs, spleen imbalances lead to a variety of bowel disorders. Those who eat a lot of sweets often suffer from chronic constipation or diarrhea.
The emotions associated with the Earth Element are sympathy, empathy, and understanding. Excess sweet taste causes an excess of sympathy to the point of being maudlin.
Excess sweet taste can over-stimulate the Earth Element and in turn over-stimulate and weaken the Water Element (kidneys and bladder). This results in excessive urination, urinary tract infections, and excessive fear and anxiety.
Pungent (or Spicy)
Moderate amounts of pungent flavor, such as that from ginger or mild spices, enhance the function of the lungs and large intestine. Pungent taste cleanses the system, stimulates healthy bowel function and circulation in the lungs. Small amounts of ginger or mild spices also can help to eliminate accumulated waste in the large intestine. It promotes the elimination of grief and sadness (the emotions related to the Metal Element) and letting go of the past.
Excesses of pungent taste overly stimulate the bowels and lungs, causing diarrhea, and rapid and shallow breathing. Since Metal controls the Wood Element (liver and gall bladder), excessive pungent flavor can cause the constriction of the liver, resulting in a stagnant, hot liver, with an increased tendency toward anger.
Moderate amounts of salt strengthen and moisten the kidneys and bladder. Good quality sea salt supports the kidneys in their effort to eliminate waste from the blood. It also balances the pH and alkalizes the blood.
Sea salt, which contains an array of trace minerals, also supports the immune function and alkalizes the spleen and digestive tract. By assisting these blood cleansing and elimination organs, salt makes the kidney’s job easier. Enhanced kidney function increases our courage and gives us stronger will power.
Conversely, excessive amounts of salt cause the constriction of the kidneys. Tight, contracted kidneys prevent optimal circulation within the organs, which can dramatically raise blood pressure and lead to hypertension. People with kidney imbalances suffer higher-than-normal amounts of stress and fear. They also lack a strong will power.