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— updated 2019-03-09


Herbalist Review, Issue 2019-#1:
The flavors of herbs and foods —
commonly overlooked, but crucial to your health

by Roger W. Wicke, Ph.D.

Flavors provide important clues that help us predict and avoid side effects unique to each individual. This article explains how to apply basic principles of traditional Chinese herbology to any herb or food you might read about on the Internet or in textbooks.

Subtopics on this page…

Copyright ©1991-2019 by RMH-Publications Trust; all rights reserved.



Traditional Chinese herbal medicine presents a very different view of health and illness than western biomedicine, which has trained us all to think in the overly simplistic terms of medical diseases and the things that will cure them.

For many years, my students have repeatedly raised the following question:

After putting a lot of time and effort into studying traditional Chinese herbology, how do I correctly apply its principles to herbs that are not described within the Chinese materia medica?

And for many years, knowing that attempting to answer this question for novice readers would be fraught with difficulties and the risk of misunderstandings, I avoided even trying. Most attempts at such articles end up confusing readers with strange terminology, foreign ideas, and exotic philosophies. Consequently, almost all Internet authors, even TCM herbalists, describe the health benefits of herbs purely from a scientific biomedical perspective:

  • For which medical diseases is the herb purportedly beneficial? — Remedy-X-for-Disease-Y
  • What are its known or speculated pharmacological/physiological effects?

In the year 2000, I completed an article intended for my advanced students:

, which explains how the traditional functions of an herb might be derived from a combination of toxicology data, taste and thermal nature, biomedical applications, and possible similarities in phytochemical profile to known Chinese herbs.

Within recent years, my development team and I have finally completed a 30-year long project to create a comprehensive self-study course in Chinese herbal medicine that, within an estimated 48 hours of study, prepares new students to begin applying Chinese herbal methods to real-life clinical problems.
I realized that it was finally time to answer the question "How do I intelligently apply Chinese herbal principles to ANY herb or food?" — in a single article that would be understandable to both novices and beginning students.
It wasn't easy, requiring several months to compile material, plus multiple re-writings and editing in response to feedback from students and friends.



The art and practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) encompasses one of the most detailed, intricate systems of herbal medicine that the world's civilizations have ever produced. Its complexity challenges beginners and experienced practitioners alike. After a brief career as a medical researcher and biomedical engineer, I chose to devote my life to study, practice, and teach it to others, because it has aided me in solving numerous difficult healthcare challenges that had baffled other practitioners.

On the other hand, some of its maxims about health, proper diet, and herbs are so apparently simple and obvious in hindsight that many science-minded westerners are tempted to overlook them, deferring instead to the rationalizations to be found within modern biochemistry, physiology, and medical pathology. Though these maxims may be simple, they are not simplistic and are based on millennia of doctors' accumulated experiences relying solely on their 5 senses and on careful questioning regarding patients' symptom patterns.

The purpose of this article is to provide beginning students and even readers with very little knowledge of Chinese herbology several essential rules for understanding how the taste/flavor of herbs and foods affects our health. By the end, you may recognize that these guidelines are also fundamental to all the culinary arts. Experienced cooks and chefs follow them to develop good-tasting, healthy recipes, either consciously and knowingly — e.g., Ayurvedic vegetarian cooking — or by instinct and experience. (Though I'm not a vegetarian, I've come to appreciate the sophistication and subtlety of Ayurvedic-Indian cuisine.)


The historical, traditional importance of taste/flavor

Have you ever become intrigued by the potential health benefits of some unfamiliar herb, purchased a quantity online, and then discovered, to your dismay, that it tasted repulsive and/or violently disagreed with your stomach? Or, in spite of its unpleasant taste, perhaps you managed to keep it down, but then later experienced unpleasant side effects?

Of the many millions of articles about the health benefits of various foods, herbs, and spices, only a very tiny percentage of all these articles ever mention the simple fact of their flavor. Generally, you have to read culinary articles to learn this information, if you are researching an unfamiliar product.

Indigenous herbal traditions worldwide have always considered the flavor of an herb to be an important clue regarding its potential effects on one's body. Physiologically, what we experience as the flavor of foods and herbs is actually a hybrid perception that is produced both by taste receptors in the oral cavity, primarily on the tongue surface, and by our sense of smell (olfaction). People who suddenly lose their sense of smell from acute sinus infection, for example, will notice that their perception of flavor will be diminished, especially of spicy and aromatic flavors. In the remainder of this article, "taste" and "flavor" are used interchangeably, as in common colloquial usage.

Of the 7 basic flavors — sweet, salty, sour, astringent, spicy, bitter, bland — sweet is the most fundamental. Sweet is the predominant flavor of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils, which comprise the core nutrients we all require for survival. Consequently, our taste buds are designed to seek out sweet tastes from nature. (It has only been within recent centuries of human history that human ingenuity has figured out how to trick our taste buds with artificially purified sugars and synthetic chemicals that this craving for sweets has been weaponized and turned against us.) However, ingestion of exclusively sweet substances soon leads to a craving for other tastes. Our desire for the other 6 tastes functions to ensure that we also obtain adequate minerals, micronutrients, and other beneficial phytochemicals in our diets. These minerals and phytochemicals serve a range of functions in the body:

  • maintaining proper electrolyte concentrations, nerve function, hydration, blood pressure, and proper pH (acid-base balance) of body tissues
  • ensuring proper enzymatic function and metabolism
  • stimulating and regulating our immune system
  • enhancing digestion
  • promoting healthy gut flora
  • inhibiting unhealthy parasites and microbial growth
  • controlling oxidative stress and damage
  • altering our consciousness and wakefulness states

Our taste buds, assisted by olfactory receptors in our nasal passages, contain highly sensitive chemical analyzers that detect mineral salts, acids, essential oils and terpenes, phenolics and polyphenols, alkaloids, and rotten and putrid matter. Extreme sensitivity to alkaloids and breakdown products of biological decay help to protect us from ingesting poisoned or spoiled food, though some of these substances might occasionally be useful as medicines in extremely small, controlled quantities.


The problem:  only a tiny percentage of articles on health benefits of herbs ever mention their taste/flavor

"Which herbs, drugs, supplements, or other therapeutic interventions would be beneficial for a person with medical disease X?"

In our courses and in many articles on our website, we explain why, if you are seeking help with a specific health problem, the preceding type of question is not the right way to start — it is not a holistic perspective.

How do you know if an herb is safe, appropriate, and effective for you? You are not the disease(s) you may have been diagnosed with by your doctor, but a complete human being.

In the following article, I explain the definition of holistic health and provide several examples to make this idea crystal clear:     An introduction to holism
(Read that section plus the next few subsections of that article for a full explanation.)

In our Chinese herbology self-study course, over 440 herbs are included in the database section. Quite a few of these herbs are common kitchen spices like ginger, orange peel, cinnamon, fennel, turmeric, garlic, etc. These database entries will give you the information you need in order to apply a truly holistic perspective to the task of choosing herbs wisely for yourself and others based on the notion of matching whole-body symptom-sign patterns and predispositions, not just isolated symptoms or specific medical diseases.

Many thousands of exotic herbal and food products are now readily accessible in this modern era of Internet commerce. Indian Ayurvedic, Middle Eastern, South American rainforest, and African herbs, spices, and foods are available at reasonable prices, and free information about the health benefits of these products can be found from any search engine.

However, there is an irksome problem: the overwhelming majority of articles about these products merely give a listing of the medical conditions ("good for disease X") purported to benefit by taking them. The more thorough articles might also discuss known phytochemical constituents, their physiological/pharmacological actions, and exactly how these are believed to benefit specific medical conditions.

But, as we have pointed out, this is not a holistic perspective. So how we overcome this obstacle?

The purpose of this article is to give you some quick methods for obtaining a rough, ballpark estimate of a TCM-style holistic description of the food or herb, simply by taste-testing it.

The following article

which has been on our website for many years, explains in technical detail how a TCM-style description of an herb's actions on the body might be obtained from a combination of:

  • The herb's toxicity data
  • Taste and thermal nature
  • Its clinical indications from western biomedical references
  • Comparison with herbs of similar phytochemical profile within the TCM materia medica

The preceding article was too technical for many beginning users, however.


Special terminology used in this article

Even if you have no prior knowledge of traditional Chinese herbology, most of the ideas presented in this article should seem like common sense. They are not complicated. However, technical terms specific to Chinese herbology are capitalized to signify that their definitions may differ slightly from their common colloquial meanings. Thus, words and phrases like "Dampness", "Dryness", "Deficiency of Yin", "Stagnation", "Damp Heat" all refer to specific symptom-sign patterns; terms like "Kidneys", "Heart", "Qi", "Blood", and "Middle Burner" refer to functional domains rather than the anatomical objects defined by western biomedicine. You will understand many of these concepts in greater detail after completing RMHI's Herbalists' BootCamp online tutorial series.


Attributes and effects of the 7 basic flavors

The most important information about an herb, after first verifying that it is generally safe for internal use, can be obtained quite quickly from its taste and thermal nature. You, and perhaps a few friends, simply taste a small amount, then see what happens and how you feel. According to Ayurveda, the immediate, pre-digestive effects of a particular taste may differ from its delayed, post-digestive effects (vipaka), so you will need to note your reactions over a period of at least several hours.

  • What flavor — sweet, salty, sour, astringent, spicy, bitter, bland — is predominant?
  • Do you notice any secondary flavors or delayed reactions?
  • How does it make your mouth feel? Lubricating/moist, smooth/silky, rough, dry, tingly, burning?
  • How does it feel in your stomach immediately after swallowing?
  • How does it feel in your stomach after a few minutes? After a few hours?
  • What seems to be its overall thermal effect on your stomach and on your whole body? Does it tend to heat up areas of your body or cool them down? (The thermal nature of an herb is rated independently of the actual temperature of the ingested tea; for example, black pepper is inherently hot and spicy, regardless of how physically hot or cold the recipe is to which it has been added.)
  • Does its tend to induce a light, rising quality in your body; a heavy, sinking quality; or neutral regarding its ascending/descending action?
  • Does its tend to induce contraction in body tissues, expansion/dispersion, or neither?

Figure 1 and Table 1 below explain how the taste of an herb or food correlates with important effects that it has on the body. These guidelines are very general, and there are always minor variations from these rules. Though Figure 1 is taken from Ayurvedic herbal theory, it complements traditional Chinese medicine quite nicely. (The origins of traditional Chinese medicine can be traced back to its ancient roots in India and Ayurvedic medicine; there are many similarities, though traditional Chinese medicine proceeded to greatly expand upon the concepts of Ayurveda.)

Figure 1.  Thermal, humidity, and density properties of the seven basic tastes
— Ayurvedic theory
•[a1, a3]•

Table 1.  Very general effects of tastes on body tissues
— traditional Chinese herbal theory
•[a2, a3]•
TasteGeneral effects, therapeutic functions
sweettonifies, moistens, harmonizes
saltysoftens; purges (in larger doses)
sourcontracts, tightens, restrains leakage of fluid, moistens
astringentcontracts, tightens, and dries
spicydisperses and moves Qi and Blood
bitterdrains Heat and dries
blandleaches out Dampness and promotes urination


Sweet tastes represent the predominant flavor of the three primary essential nutrients: carbohydrates and sugars, fats, and proteins. As can be seen from Figure 1, above, the main qualities of the sweet taste are its heaviness and wetness. TCM theory states that while sweetness is necessary to nourish the Qi and Blood, a predominance of sweet tastes in the diet without other flavors tends to generate pathological Dampness in the body. The symptoms of Interior Dampness may include abdominal bloating, sensation of heaviness and torpor, edema (an over-accumulation of fluids), obesity, and discharge of mucus from the throat, nose, and bowels. Sweetness also has a mild cooling nature that soothes and counteracts the hot irritating quality of spicy tastes. (Bee's honey, especially clover honey, is generally classified as warming, since unlike many other sweetening agents, it has a noticeably spicy sharpness overlying its predominantly sweet taste.)

The heavy and wet nature of sweetness make it suitable for resolving Interior-Deficiency with Dryness or Deficiency of Yin (Interior-Deficiency-Heat) conditions. If Dampness or other types of Stagnation are present, excessive sweetness should be avoided and other tastes added that counteract its wet and heavy qualities, such as spicy and bitter.

The tendency of sweetness to promote or aggravate Dampness and Stagnation is why good cooking around the world includes the knowledgeable use of culinary herbs and spices.

Both sweet and salty tastes have a sweet vipaka, which means that both sweet and salty tastes have a moistening and heavy effect upon digestion. (In Ayurvedic theory, vipaka is defined as the post-digestive actions of a flavor, herb, or food on the body, which may differ from its immediate, pre-digestive effects due to the transformative action of digestion.) Excessive amounts of sweet vipaka tend to promote pathological Dampness, but proper amounts promote normal secretion of fluids, including semen and sexual secretions. Sweet vipakas, because of their moistening quality, promote the comfortable discharge of urine, feces, and intestinal gas. Pathological Internal Dryness may result in difficulty and discomfort during excretion, and may be counteracted by sweet and salty foods and herbs.



Salty tastes result from the presence of sodium chloride, as well as other minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium salts. The salty taste is primarily heavy and wet, but not to as great a degree as the sweet taste; it is also slightly warming. Saltiness tends to induce a sharp taste sensation; its action is softening, penetrating, and downward-moving. Certain laxatives such as magnesium/sodium sulfate have a salty component and act by softening and moistening the bowels while simultaneously having a purgative action. To understand the softening action of salt, observe what happens to fresh vegetables after they are sliced and sprinkled with salt; they will wilt quickly, becoming soggy and limp. Another use of the salty taste is to give an herbal formula a penetrating action, carrying the formula as a whole deep into the body. TCM theory states that the salty taste corresponds to the Kidneys; the Kidneys are the deepest Organ of the body, but saltiness penetrates them easily.

Ayurvedic theory states that in small doses the salty taste promotes digestion and enkindles the digestive fire — corresponding to a normal, healthy Middle Burner Fire. (Adequate intake of sodium chloride from sea salt or other healthy forms of salt helps to maintain normal gastric secretion of hydrochloric acid, which is essential for proper digestion of proteins.) In larger doses salt becomes more purgative in its action, and in very large doses it acts as an emetic, causing vomiting. (Caution: extremely large doses of salt can actually be fatal; as little as 4 tablespoons of salt have resulted in death from acute natremia in adults. •[a6]•) When used in excess or to the exclusion of other tastes, it tends to aggravate or induce Heat conditions, especially of the Stomach and of the Blood, Stagnancy of Blood, and wasting of muscle tissue. Because saltiness penetrates into the Kidneys and has a softening action, excess salt can soften and deteriorate those tissues associated with the Kidneys, including bones, teeth, and cranial hair.



Sour tastes result from the presence of acids in plant products and foods. The sour taste has a warming and slightly moistening action, and has a slight quality of lightness. In small doses its contracting nature tends to tighten the tissues it contacts, thus it is beneficial for conditions characterized by excessive looseness, such as when the skin pores are too loose and result in resting perspiration. Its invigorating action tends to rise because of its slight lightness, and thus it has an awakening effect on the mind and the senses.

Overuse or predominance of sour tastes tends to make the teeth sensitive and creates Heat, especially of the Stomach and Blood, and can lead to muscle wasting. Thus while its effect in small doses may be to tighten, in prolonged excessive doses it may eventually create looseness and atrophy. Its contracting nature may cause edema and localized trapping of Heat Toxins.

The sour taste has a sour vipaka, which means that its post-digestive effect is similar to its predigestive effect. When present as a flavor in food, it promotes the Middle Burner Fire of digestion. No other tastes are characterized by the sour vipaka. The sour vipaka, like sweet, promotes the comfortable discharge of feces, intestinal gas, and urine. Unlike sweet, sour vipaka tends to reduce semen and sexual secretions, although it promotes the secretion of other fluids such as saliva, stomach secretions, and interstitial fluid. Excesses of both sour and sweet vipakas aggravate or induce Interior Dampness conditions.



The TCM herbal literature sometimes does not clearly distinguish between sour and astringent, yet these are two very different tastes. The juice of lemon has a purely sour taste, whereas ripe chokecherries (Prunus virginiana •[a7]•) and persimmons are both sweet and astringent. The rind, or pericarpium, of a pomegranate is extremely astringent, which is why most people avoid eating it. However, pomegranate rind can be very useful as a medicinal herb if a strong astringent is required. (Caution: the rind is also slightly toxic.) Astringent tastes have a drying effect upon the mucus membranes, including those in the mouth, creating a dry cottony sensation. Thus the humidity characteristics are slightly drying in contrast to the slightly moistening effect of sour. The density, humidity, and thermal characteristics of astringent are the exact opposite of sour; the only attribute they share is that both create an initial quality of contraction. However, the contraction of astringent is analogous to that which occurs when a wet sponge is squeezed out in mid-air, rather than the contraction of sour which is like the squeezing of a sponge while submerged under water.

The student of TCM should be aware of the potential confusion in the literature between sour and astringent. This issue is clouded even more because many foods and herbs truly have both sour and astringent tastes. A good example would be slightly unripe chokecherries, which have a noticeable sour taste when they are first put in the mouth but have a distinctly puckery and dry aftertaste. Truly astringent foods and herbs are rarely mistaken for sour, and are always labeled as astringent, but purely sour foods and herbs are sometimes labeled as sour and astringent, and this is an error in terminology usage.

The astringent taste has a slightly drying, slightly heavy quality, and is cooling. It has a somewhat sedative effect on the mind, and this can be related partly to its slightly heavy and sinking quality. The astringent taste can stop diarrhea, sweating, and bleeding, and promotes the closing and healing of sores and wounds. It also promotes the absorption of body fluids from the mouth and digestive tract, and has a constricting effect upon the muscles.

Excessive use of astringent tastes may lead to abnormal retention of feces, bowel gas, and urine, emaciation, fatigue, thirst, and stiffness. The TCM patterns which summarize these side-effects are Stagnancy and Dryness, and perhaps Deficiency if use of astringents is prolonged. The astringent taste has a spicy vipaka, which means that its post-digestive effect is similar to that of the spicy taste. (The spicy vipaka is discussed under the spicy taste.)



The term spicy is sometimes referred to as "pungent" or "acrid". (I prefer reserving the term acrid for tastes and smells which are unpleasantly burning or noxious in quality.) It has a hot, drying, and light quality. Spicy tastes result from the presence of a class of compounds that include terpenes, essential oils, and aldehydes in plant products and foods. Many of these substances are volatile, which means they evaporate easily, and aromatic, which gives them a potent fragrance. The sense of smell and taste are closely interactive, as anyone with a head cold or nasal congestion will realize. The qualities of food we often associate with taste are considerably reduced if the sense of smell is diminished.

The dry, light, and heating qualities of spicy have a cleansing, dispersing effect on the senses and act to clear Stagnation of Dampness and of Blood; these properties are especially useful for Stagnation accompanied by Cold. If the quality of Stagnation is accompanied by Heat, bitter tastes must be added to counteract the heating effect. Many spicy tastes also have a dispersing action on the body Exterior, inducing sweating. When present as a flavor in food, it promotes the Middle Burner Fire of digestion.

An acute excess of spicy taste may result in an immediate flow of nasal mucus and tear production of the eyes (lacrimation). Prolonged overuse of spicy tastes tends to aggravate or induce Interior Heat and Deficiency because of their hot, dispersing nature. Interior Wind, Heat, and Dryness may result, with such symptoms as burning sensations of the intestines, stomach, urinary tract, itchiness of the skin and entire body, thirst, irritability, and tremors.

The spicy taste has a spicy vipaka, which means that its post-digestive effect is similar to its predigestive effect. (Bitter and astringent tastes also have a spicy vipaka.) The spicy vipaka, when used over an extended time, tends to counteract conditions of Dampness and Stagnation, but will aggravate conditions of Heat and Dryness, resulting in such symptoms as constipation, difficult and scanty urination, and reduced and difficult discharge of semen and sexual fluids.



Bitter tastes have a drying, very light, and very cold quality. They often result from the presence of flavonoids, polyphenols, and alkaloids. Alkaloids are a class of nitrogen-containing organic compounds with varying degrees of toxicity; many of these have been purified and used as potent medicines. Our normal aversion to purely bitter tastes is what prevents us from over-consuming bitters. Bitter constituents possess a wide range of pharmacological activity, which may include antibiotic, anticancer, analgesic, antiarrhythmic, psychotropic, and stimulant effects. Bitter cold herbs are frequently antibiotic-like in action, and the same precautions and contraindications that apply to antibiotics also apply to these herbs. While the bitter taste is generally useful for clearing Damp Heat conditions, it may also aggravate or induce Interior Deficiency Cold of the Middle Burner because of its draining and cold action. Prolonged excessive use of bitter may lead to Interior Deficiency Cold of all three Burners. Bitter tastes may also aggravate a pre-existing condition of Dryness or Deficiency of Yin (Interior-Deficiency-Heat). Thus, if one has a low-grade fever due to Deficiency of Yin, the drying action of bitter may actually aggravate the fever, even though the bitter taste would otherwise have a cold action.

In cooking, bitter in combination with sour and spicy helps to distribute more evenly the action of the sour and spicy in activating the Middle Burner Fire of digestion, even though bitter by itself has a cold action. Bitter foods and culinary herbs by themselves are not very palatable and are typically combined with spicy or sour. Consider an example of a curry powder, which usually starts with such core ingredients as coriander, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric; all four of these are bitter, and the first three are also somewhat spicy. The remaining ingredients may vary considerably, but often contain such spices as black or red pepper, and cinnamon, which are spicy. Finally, lemon or lime juice, or tamarind pulp are added to provide the sour component. If one analyzes the ingredients of almost any curry recipe, one will usually find the three taste components of bitter, spicy, and sour. Another example is the common salad; many greens, such as watercress, romaine, escarole, and dandelion greens are primarily bitter to taste, but also somewhat sweet. A typical salad dressing, such as Italian, consists predominantly of sour (vinegar and lemon juice) and spicy (garlic and black pepper), with small amounts of secondary components of spicy and bitter (marjoram, oregano, sage, basil, thyme, etc.).

Foods and herbs that have a moistening/lubricating action have flavors that are frequently a combination of sweet plus slightly bitter. The sweet aspect provides the moistening effect, and the slight bitterness enhances the overall cooling properties. (Such herbs are classified in TCM herbology as Yin tonics.)

Bitter tastes have a spicy vipaka, which means that for prolonged usage, the post-digestive effects act to aggravate Heat, Dryness, and conditions of Deficiency of Yin. Thus, while the predigestive effect of bitter may have a cold action on the Middle Burner Fire, impeding digestion with prolonged usage, the postdigestive effects may aggravate Heat, especially Deficiency-type Heat with Dryness. This reasoning helps us to understand why bitter taken in excess or to the exclusion of other tastes may aggravate a pre-existing condition of Deficiency Cold of the Middle Burner and may also aggravate Deficiency of Yin.



Bland tastes according to TCM theory have a gentle, seeping action, and are able to penetrate where other tastes may have too strong an action. Chronic Interior Dampness conditions are an example where bland tastes may be effective in permeating and draining the Dampness. Bland tastes have a relatively neutral action, compared with all the other tastes; they tend to be neutral to slightly cold in their thermal nature, and slightly heavy. The slight heaviness can be understood by the effect of a completely bland diet over a prolonged period; the person's digestion will become sluggish due to the lack of stimulation. Thus, a generally bland diet in most cases is not healthy; variation and diversity in tastes are what makes food taste good, and if food does not taste good, the proper digestive fluids will not be secreted.


Misc. flavors


Umami, a Japanese term, refers to the taste of broths and cooked meats. (Within the TCM classification system, umami can be considered as a subclass of sweet tastes, though with a slightly warm to neutral thermal nature rather than slightly cool.) Physiologists now recognize umami as a distinct taste that is enabled by the presence of taste receptors that are sensitive to glutamate, an amino acid present in higher amounts in foods like cooked meats, aged cheeses, soy sauce, fermented soy foods like natto, tomatoes, mushrooms, and seaweeds. Food manufacturers add MSG (monosodium glutamate) to processed foods in order to trigger these taste receptors. Our natural desire for sweet and umami tastes ordinarily results in a healthy consumption of adequate nutrients in our diets. However, just as processed sugar has sabotaged our natural cravings to result in sugar overconsumption, the ubiquitous use of MSG in processed foods has resulted in many people developing addiction to MSG as well as hypersensitivity, which can cause a wide range of symptoms including headaches and migraines, spontaneous sweating, numbness, tingling, or burning sensations in head and neck, heart palpitations, chest pain, and nausea. •[b1-2]•


Plants with significant aromatic essential oil •[c1]• constituents, which are predominantly volatile, small-molecular-weight hydrocarbon compounds, generally will taste spicy. For such spicy tastes, smell plays a significant role in our perception of the taste. Many people discover this fact when they suffer from severe nasal congestion, and their perception of spicy tastes become markedly diminished. While many common kitchen spices have strong, characteristic fragrances, traditional Chinese herbology reserves the "taste" of aromatic for only those herbs that have especially potent aromas, which are a predominant aspect of their nature. Some examples of spicy-aromatic substances are the various species of cardamom seeds, musk (secretions from navel glands of musk deer), and rose-maloes resin.


Another example of how important smell is to the sensation of taste and to our health is our ability to detect and avoid rotten foods. •[d1]• Consuming rotten-putrid food can sometimes be lethal, because such food can contain highly pathogenic and toxic bacteria and/or molds. (It is important to note here that not all dangerously rotted food will emit rotten odors; the rule should be "When in doubt, throw it out.") Our ability to avoid such foods is dependent on extremely sensitive olfactory receptors in our nasal passages that detect the tiniest quantities of specific chemical degradation products frequently emitted by decaying food. Such odors may reflexively trigger revulsion, nausea, and/or retching. People who suffer the loss of smell (anosmia), a condition that tends to affect more of us as we age, are at high risk from consuming rotten foods, because the mouth-taste of such foods may continue to seem normal.


Examples of these principles applied to some common spices, herbs, and foods

By applying the preceding theory of taste and thermal nature, we can come very close to predicting the general effects of any food or herb on the human body. In Table 2, below, common herbs and foods are listed together with their taste and thermal nature, plus a very brief summary of their known actions on the body. Refer back to previous sections of this article to see how much you can guess/predict on your own.

Note:   Students who successfully complete our online Herbalists' BootCamp will graduate with an understanding of the definitions and practical applications of basic traditional Chinese herbal terminology used in the table below.

Table 2.  Examples of common herbs and foods,
their taste and thermal nature, and their very general effects on the body
— traditional Chinese herbal theory
Herb or food Taste Thermal nature 8-Principal-Patterns indications Actions/effects
cinnamon spicy, sweet warm for either Interior or Exterior Cold-Deficiency warms meridians and disperses Cold; strengthens Heart Yang
black pepper spicy hot for Interior-Cold warms Middle Burner and disperses Cold
licorice root sweet neutral for Interior-Deficiency tonifies Spleen and benefits Qi; moistens Lungs and relieves cough
umeboshi plum (unsalted) sour warm for Interior-Deficiency stabilizes and restrains Lung Qi, tonifies Yin, restores Fluids
goldenseal bitter cold for Interior-Excess-Heat drains Damp Heat from all Three Burners
gentian root bitter cold for Interior-Excess-Heat drains Damp Heat from Liver and Gallbladder
pears sweet cold for Interior-Deficiency-Heat tonifies Qi and Blood, promotes Fluids, relieves Deficiency Heat
peppermint (Mentha x piperita) spicy cool for Exterior-Heat disperses Wind Heat, promotes smooth circulation of Liver Qi (mild effect)
rosemary spicy warm for Exterior-Cold, and for Stagnancy-type Interior-Excess assists Yang, regulates Qi and Blood, relieves Stagnant Blood
chicken egg (soft-boiled) sweet neutral for Interior-Deficiency (Deficiency of Qi and Yin) tonifies Qi and Blood, lubricates Dryness, tonifies Yin
sea salt (NaCl + trace minerals) salty warm for Interior-Deficiency (Deficiency of Yin) and for Stagnancy-type Interior-Excess tonifies Kidney Yin, lubricates Dryness, softens nodules and hard accumulations, resolves Stagnation

Some personal anecdotes

As the three anecdotes below will illustrate, we tend to crave those flavors that are well matched to our own particular imbalances and symptom-sign patterns; conversely, we are naturally repulsed by tastes/flavors that are extreme or poorly matched to our condition. Here are the most common reasons that we might frequently avoid such common sense in real life: (1) addictions; (2) dysfunctional programming by the "Malevolent Control Matrix", which beguiles us into switching off our perception of reality. (The latter mental disorder tends especially to afflict people who have spent too many years in school memorizing theories without adequate real-life experience.)


The risks of ingesting pills and capsules

An elderly woman had been experiencing frequent blackouts, during which she would briefly fall to the ground and lose consciousness for a minute or so at a time. Several of her friends approached me and asked if I would briefly and casually glimpse at her tongue, for she was resistant toward unsolicited advice. (Appearance of the tongue and its coating provide important clues about one's health status in Chinese medicine.) While the woman conversed about her life, I managed to catch a few crucial glimpses: a generally reddish tongue, devoid of coating, with extensive, deep, randomly-oriented fissures over the entire tongue surface — what in Chinese medicine should be immediately recognized as indicating a severe, chronic, and generalized Deficiency of Yin. Such conditions are typically characterized by generalized, chronic dehydration in all body tissues, chronic thirst and oral dryness, likely mineral and electrolyte imbalances, insomnia, emotional agitation and irritability, tendency to feel easily overheated, and in severe cases affecting the central nervous system with manifestation of spasms, tics, convulsions, and cerebral strokes. The pattern of Deficiency of Kidney Yin may also include high blood pressure as one of the symptoms. For all such Deficiency-of-Yin conditions, spicy-hot herbs are generally contraindicated, as these can severely aggravate symptoms; usually, such individuals will be highly sensitive and averse to spicy-hot herbs in their food.

Without mentioning my private thoughts and speculations, our conversation somehow meandered onto the topic of herbs. The woman volunteered that she regularly took cayenne supplements "for her high blood pressure". I asked her, did she not find the spicy-hot taste unpleasant? Oh no, she replied, she takes capsules so she doesn't have to worry about the taste.

My standard advice to my own students and clients is to generally avoid taking herbal pills or capsules, for by doing so, you are circumventing your taste buds, your body's natural gate-keepers regarding all things that go into your stomach. What about vitamin pills or pharmaceutical drugs? Some of them might taste quite nasty. Shouldn't that make you wonder about the wisdom of taking them at all?? Some high-quality vitamin products extracted from whole foods and devoid of toxic solvents, on the other hand, might taste quite tolerable and even pleasant. I know, because I've tried a few myself. Being an herbalist and naturally curious about the products others manufacture and sell, I am always crushing, smelling, and cautiously biting into such things, because I've learned to trust and pay attention to my senses of smell and taste.

Exercises and questions for the reader:

  • Do an Internet search for  high blood pressure cayenne  .  What common advice do you find?
  • Analyze this case, applying what you have learned in this article.
  • Do you suspect that the cayenne might be severely aggravating this woman's overall condition?
  • What about the blood pressure? Is it possible that all this Internet advice may have badly backfired in this case?
  • Do an Internet search for  ministroke causes  .  Could ministrokes (TIA) possibly explain the frequent temporary blackouts? Do you think that the cayenne might be helping or aggravating this symptom?

The risks of ignoring highly unpleasant flavors

A client of mine had been taking mega-doses (20 grams/day and higher) of vitamin C powder to help control infection in an abscessed tooth until her dental appointment. Within a day of beginning the vitamin C, the tooth pain and swelling were greatly diminished. However, within a few days she began to experience severe diarrhea, but was reluctant to reduce the high doses of vitamin C for fear of the tooth pain returning. She commented that in spite of the harsh acid-sourness of the vitamin C drink, she forced herself to down it anyway.

I had explained to her the importance of buffering the vitamin C with some baking soda so that she could tolerate higher amounts without diarrhea and GI tract distress, but this time I took special effort to show her exactly how to do it correctly and to taste-test the result until it was almost pleasant to taste. If you combine just the right amount of baking soda to vitamin C powder dissolved in water, the mixture will fizz for a few seconds while the acid-base chemical reaction completes, resulting in reduced acidity. Then taste carefully, and keep adding a pinch more of baking soda at a time until the result is very mildly acidic and tangy — similar to a mixture of unsweetened lemon juice and carbonated soda water. The next time you follow this procedure, you will be able to better gauge exactly how much baking soda to add.

On following this procedure, she was able to continue the mega-doses of vitamin C for several weeks, while her bowels quickly returned to normal the following day.


Black seed (Nigella sativa)

Black seed (Nigella sativa) is an herb used in Middle Eastern cooking and for medicinal purposes. It is not listed in the Chinese materia medica, and several years ago I became interested in its properties. Following are several articles that summarize its numerous documented health benefits:

In spite of the voluminous data on the biomedical benefits of black seed contained within the preceding articles, I had to refer to Wikipedia for a summary of its taste and culinary applications:

The black seeds taste like a combination of onions, black pepper, and oregano. They have a pungent, bitter taste and smell...The dry-roasted seeds flavor curries, vegetables, and pulses.

Yet elsewhere I discovered the typical dosage: 1-2 teaspoons/day of the dry-roasted seeds ground into powder. After obtaining my first pound, I dry-roasted a small amount as per instructions (150 deg.F.) in the oven for two hours. (The raw seeds must be heat-treated in order to remove their harshly acrid-burning taste.) In my opinion, the resulting seeds tasted slightly sweet, as in a nut-like sweetness rather than sugary-sweet, mildly spicy, and only very slightly bitter. However, after using regularly for a few days, I also noticed a mild, but delayed and persistently astringent aftertaste. After gradually increasing my dosage to about 2-3x the recommended dosage, I began to notice a slight burning sensation in my epigastrium and esophagus within several hours afterward, which was relieved by restricting the timing of the doses to immediately before or with meals. From this I speculated that black seed might enhance stomach acid secretion immediately following ingestion, which the following article seemed to verify:

Because my long-term symptom pattern includes mild Deficiency of Yin (tendency to become dehydrated, dry mouth, etc.), I experimented with some recipes and figured out how to neutralize or counteract the undesirable — for me — drying effects of its spicy-astringent qualities. I included the ground black seeds in one of my recipes for herbal chocolates, which includes coconut oil, cocoa powder, cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices. The cocoa powder is the key ingredient here as it has a smooth and somewhat lubricating texture, especially when its moderately bitter flavor is complemented by sweet ingredients like powdered stevia leaf or honey.

The main point that you should take away from this story is that your own taste reactions may differ from what you read from online sources, textbooks, and even scientific articles. Your taste reactions provide important clues about the likely physiological effects of that herb on your body. Other people may experience differing sensitivities to the taste of an herb, depending upon their constitution and body type. The vast majority of biomedically-oriented authors seem to consider the flavor of an herb to be a mere curiosity and do not give it the careful attention and serious consideration that it deserves.


Guidelines for applying taste and thermal nature to biomedical information about herbs

Now, finally, we have some simple tools to use for making sense of the vast amount of biomedically-oriented information about herbs, foods, and other medicinal substances.

Before deciding to use an herb on a regular basis to overcome a specific health problem:

  1. Consider whether the biomedical information about that herb seems relevant to your condition, from a purely medical perspective.
  2. If the answer seems to be yes, is the herb safe for you to take? What are its known toxicity and contraindications? Do any of those factors apply to you?
  3. Try to discover the known taste/flavor of that herb. Often, culinary websites are better for finding this type of information. (Do an Internet search for  [herb X] taste  or  [herb X] flavor .) Also, very old texts on herbalism may include this information, because herbalists from previous historical eras considered that information crucial — which it is.
  4. By applying the simple theory you have learned here, do the flavor characteristics of the herb match your overall symptom-sign patterns? (You will learn much more about symptom-sign patterns in Herbalists BootCamp.)
    • If the herb is mismatched to your patterns, see if you can find another herb that better fits all your requirements. If you cannot, you will need either to avoid it entirely or to combine it with other herbs to mitigate the harsh side effects that would otherwise occur, especially if taken for extended periods.
  5. Finally, purchase a small amount and taste-test it. Does it feel "right" in your mouth and stomach? Do you experience any unpleasant effects over the next few hours or days? If so, perhaps it is not right for you, or you may need to combine it with other herbs or foods to mitigate any harsh flavors or side effects.
    • Some herbs are inherently so vile-tasting that most people find them difficult to swallow. However, even in these cases, those who may most benefit by such herbs often describe a sense of "appropriateness" to how they feel immediately after swallowing it. Proceed cautiously.
    • Avoid automatically dismissing side effects or worsening of your symptoms as a "detox reaction". Sometimes, this might be the case, many times not. If in doubt, please consult a knowledgeable health practitioner or someone you trust who can be objective and who has extensive experience using that herb.

My reasons for writing this article

Over the many years I have taught Chinese herbology, I have gradually shifted my focus from exclusively training health professionals toward a much greater emphasis on placing sophisticated tools in the hands of precocious beginners and people interested primarily in helping themselves, family, and friends.

As I explain in the following articles:

with the aid of interactive databases, software, instructional texts, and games that we have created over a 30-year period, we can now teach basic principles of Chinese herbology to novices in a fraction of the time that would be required in a conventional educational setting. If you have the required aptitude and persistence, Herbalists' BootCamp provides an accelerated learning environment in which you can acquire basic knowledge of Chinese herbology, enough to begin helping yourself, your family, and friends after successful graduation.

This article provides yet one more tool for beginning students to apply principles of Chinese herbal medicine, not just to Chinese herbs, but to any unfamiliar herb or food they might read about on the Internet.