HOW FOOD FLAVOURS AFFECT YOUR HEALTH
(A TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE PERSPECTIVE)
There is a Chinese Medicine phrase that states “Food and Medicine come from the same source”. If you think about it, it totally does! All of the ingredients found within Traditional Chinese Medicine are from organic sources and you can literally “eat” any of them, whether it’s from an animal (or an animal by-product), plant source (including roots and beans), or anything from the ocean (even coral and seaweed)!
One guiding principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the yin yang theory. In the natural world, there exists a balance between 2 opposing and co-existing forces and yet, they also exist in each other. Our bodies, minds, and souls are designed the same way in that to be healthy, we need to be in harmony between these 2 bipolar states. Yin is receptive and passive, calm and slow, embodying cold and damp qualities (when we are sleeping). Yang is its exact opposite in aggressive and active, embodying heat, dryness, and movement (when we are awake).
One of our mission at The Chinese Soup Lady is to bring these principles into the foods and drinks we consume in order to support harmony.
Some principles of diet from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective:
- Foods are classified in nature: cooling neutral, or warming. You can read more here in this article.
- Foods are also classified in physical temperature. The literal measurement of temperature of the food in degrees Celcius of Fahrenheit.
- Foods also carry taste categories (they usually have two): bitter, sweet, salty (or savory), pungent, or sour. Spicy isn’t a taste category, but can be classified in nature.
- Time of consumption based on our meridian cycle (or flow of energy depending on the time of day). This can usually be classified as morning, noon, or night.
Why does taste matter (from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective)?
In the end, TCM is about finding balance in the person as a whole. While I know primarily it addresses more the physical construct of the body, it also does support the mental portion in some ways such as calming the spirit and calming the mind.
Paying attention to temperature, nature, and flavour will help you on your journey to a healthy body and mind. It just makes things easier and can help you make informed choices about what to eat, how to cook, and how much to eat, targeting specific opportunities or challenges in your well being.
- I want to cover temperature first (even though I know this article is about flavour). As the stomach is the first place where food is received for true processing (in which it’s converted to a vital nutrient), cold foods will put a strain on the stomach as it will then need additional energy to heat it as the digestion process needs warmth. This then means this energy is pulled from other organs and parts of the body that could have otherwise be used for something more useful. And, we have control of what temperature the food goes into our body! You can check out this video on why I drink warm water (all day long) and especially first thing in the morning when I wake! Honestly, I even drink warm water on a run or ride… it’s weird, but did take some getting used to!
- Bitter foods are known to be cooling in TCM. That means, they are more yin (instead of yang) and help with excess yang or yin deficiency. Examples of bitter foods that have strong cooling effects include bitter melon, which is known as a super cooling good, especially if used in soups. This also includes turnips, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, celery, radishes (you know the white radishes are also super cooling!). You can taste the slight bitterness in these foods, especially when they are raw and reduce in bitterness once cooked, but they still do retain their cooling effect.
- From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, bitter herbs mirror bitter foods in that they are cooling and can clear heat, while sour herbs and foods are astringent (in that they can shrink or tighten cells or skin, can remove oils, and are antibacterial.
Sour, bitter, and salty ingredients and Chinese herbs increase yin in the body, focusing on having more internal effect and having a downward movement.
Sweet, pungent, and neutral ingredients and Chinese herbs increase yang in the body, focusing on outward movement and having more external effects.
- Pungent foods and herbs such as cinnamon, peppermint, garlic, ginger, chili, black or white pepper, help disperse and remove obstruction of the Qi and blood in our bodies. They help push the Qi and blood through the body and are particularly good for clearing colds, flus, and infections our bodies by opening the pores and promoting sweat, which helps eliminate the unwanted pathogens from the body. This is why if you eat a lot of ginger, you’ll definitely start feeling warm and sweating.
- This spicy sweet ginger tea can be quite pungent and punchy if you have enough ginger! Depending on how spicy and strong you’d like it, add more ginger (either grated or sliced makes it even more potent!). This tea is a combination of sweet and pungent in taste, but definitely gets the blood flowing and warm!
- Sweet foods from a Chinese medicine perspective is different from that of a Western view of sweet. It’s not the same chocolate or white sugar sweet that you taste. The taste of these “sweet” ingredients are more subtle, gentle, and lingering in the mouth and throat. Sweet includes ingredients such as red dates, ginseng, carrots, lamb, licorice, sweet potatoes, fruits and meats also fall into this category. And the key is that this sweet is consumed in small, controlled amounts and small quantities. In moderation really! Small amounts of sweetness in our diets and in Chinese medicine help tonify the body, but too much sweet will dampen the body
- This red and blue dates tea is a great example if a tea that tonifies the blood and Qi and is slightly sweet (and a bit sour) to taste!
- Salty foods from a Chinese medicine perspective provide a diuretic effect, eliminating water from the body, and reducing swelling and lumps in the body. Salty ingredients can include meats (remember foods can have 2 flavours, so meats can be both sweet and salty), seaweed, all seafood, and even salt itself.
- Sour ingredients are function opposite to pungent ingredients in their support to the body, which can include reducing excess sweating, slowing down flow of blood and Qi, especially if it comes to bleeding or diarrhoea. Sour ingredients include lemons, vinegar (both black and white), unripe fruit, crab apples, or dried hawthorn are some examples.
- A great sour soup is a Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup that carries that tartness and is also salty to taste.
The great thing about understanding how yin and yang is balanced is that this also pairs with the cooking styles of Chinese soups!
You can follow this post on “How Different Styles of Chinese Soups are Made“.
For more videos, visit us on YouTube.
For further reading, I’ve found some more scientific and published articles. Here are some to read up on:
- Shen, 2007, “Yin Deficiency”, Science Direct [online], “https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/yin-deficiency“
- Ting-Ting Jiang,Ji-Cheng L, 2020, “Review on the systems biology research of Yin-deficiency-heat syndrome in traditional Chinese medicine”, American Association for Anatomy [online], “https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ar.24354″
- Hicks, A., (2013). Principles of Chinese Medicine: What it is and how it works. 2nd Edition. Singing Dragon. USA