Salty Taste in Chinese medicine

oyster on ice

Salty taste in Chinese medicine

Foods classified as having a ‘salty’ taste in Chinese medicine benefit your Water phase energy, ie your Kidney and Bladder energies.

For more on the question of what ‘taste’ signifies, click on Taste in Chinese medicine.

For more on these important subjects, click on Water phase, Kidney and Bladder functions.

Your Water element, (your Kidney and Bladder), looks after your inherited constitution, how well you make bones, nervous tissues (including your brain tissue) your hormonal system and to some extent your filtration system – all from what you eat and from your genes.

In turn the bone marrow goes to nourish your body’s cells, especially your brain, your immunity, your ability to digest food, to think and remember, and your spinal cord.

If you don’t eat enough food classified as ‘salty’, or what you eat is poor quality, (or your digestion is poor)

  • Your bones won’t grow strong,
  • Growth may be stunted
  • Memory may suffer
  • You’ll tend to have poor concentration
  • Endocrine system may mal function: for women, this can lead to troublesome menses
  • Libido may be lower
  • Lowered immunity
  • Poor digestion, so your Blood may not nourish your tissues properly
  • Circulatory disorders
  • Body fluid imbalances
  • Stamina and endurance may suffer
  • You may age faster


Why might these problems afflict you? OK, so now you really do need to read up on the Water phase and your Kidney function.

As schoolteachers know, undernourished or malnourished students can’t learn or behave well. When given food, or at least better-quality food, they settle more easily and enjoy life more. Also, they complain less and learn more. This applies also to foods with the Sweet taste, of course but Salty taste foods also benefit concentration and calmness.

Naturally salty foods help children concentrate better and learn more
Orderly classes from balanced foods

Meaning of the Salty taste

2500 years ago the Chinese worked this out and noted the foods that benefited the Kidney and Bladder functions. These they described as having the ‘salty’ taste.

Not that all such foods always taste salty, and you must also remember that modern tastes have been subverted by artificial flavours and too much of one and not enough of another, making our experience of taste rather lop-sided.

Another problem is that by labelling them ‘salty’ we expect them to taste salty and are baffled when foods that don’t taste salty are still listed as such.

Perhaps the original authors of the text from which all this experience derives (the Huang Di Nei Ching Su Wen) might, as far as us modern people are concerned, have done better to describe these foods not as ‘salty’ but as ‘Water phase’ foods. This has irked us for 2500 years and it’s all their fault – just think of all that misunderstanding, even suffering which, with five minutes thought, they could have forestalled.

The list of salty foods below is not complete …

… and never can be because many modern foods and supplements did not exist 2500 years ago, and it can take a while for modern practitioners of Chinese medicine to discern the qualities of a ‘new’ food.

As an example – although not listed below among ‘salty’ foods, I regard fish oil as being salty. Some years ago, after suggesting fish oil supplements for children and students, there was a marked improvement in their ability to concentrate. Modern research now supports this! (Adolescent behavior and dopamine availability are uniquely sensitive to dietary omega-3 fatty acid deficiency – PubMed (

So what do ‘salty’ foods do for you?

“Salty” foods:

When taken in balance with foods of other tastes … lead to

  • Proper growth rates
  • Good developmental progress, physical and mental
  • Resilience in adversity
  • Perseverance
  • Good concentration and memory
  • Healthy immunity
  • Good digestion
  • Strong durable joints


The original texts didn’t describe the action of the salty taste that way, however. What they said was that foods labelled as salty took how a food worked inwards and to some extent downwards in the body towards its root, the core of your body’s being. They saw salty foods are softening and moistening, balancing too much hardness, but also helping the body clear out too much moisture – what we call ‘damp’.

Probably they described foods this way because ‘salty’ tasting foods were not that common inland. Salt itself may have been highly prized. Eventually, of course, people learned how to get salt from the sea, using salt pans where seawater evaporates leaving its salts behind to gather up and sell.

salt water evaporation ponds - salt-pans
Getting salt from sea water


Other Factors change how salty it is

Other factors also influence how salty a given food is, such as

  • where the food is grown
  • its climate
  • at what stage of growth they harvest it
  • how long and in what way it has been stored before being displayed for sale and
  • how any artificial substances (eg foodstuffs, fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides) may have affected it.
  • and what about how you cook it ? …


How Cooking affects Salty food

Then there’s the question of how you cook the food. Whatever the food’s underlying quality in terms of saltiness and temperature (ie whether warming or cooling) how you cook it changes this:

  • Baking, frying or roasting food concentrates it and usually makes it hotter. These also make it more salty.
  • Steaming and boiling food can make it cooler and more dilute than otherwise: less salty.


Salty foods come in different forms and some are more nutritious (in terms of modern nutrition) while others benefit the way your Water phase, your Kidney and Bladder, work.

Craving for, or aversion to, salty food …

… or, even more so, for salt itself … a craving or aversion may indicate a problem with your Water phase or element.

The same applies if everything you eat tastes salty, even without added salt!

What kind of treatment would help? ‘Treatment comes in two forms.

  • First, make sure you eat enough foods, in balance, of the other flavours so read our page on taste in Chinese medicine. Then read our page on Nutrition. If you decide to ignore this first piece of advice, don’t bother with the second, right next below, because no matter how much treatment you receive, its effects won’t last. You’ll be wasting your money. And the time of your acupuncturist, but he probably won’t mind too much if he’s not particularly busy: you’re giving him your money, after all!
  • Second, go get some acupuncture. If your acupuncturist knows what she or he is doing, they’ll be aware of the importance of healthy ‘Water Phase‘ energies in your life, and they can almost certainly do something about it. Failing a convenient acupuncturist, get some Tuina, Chinese massage or similar, for example Shiatsu, again from someone experienced, as shiatsu professionals use the same theoretical basis as Chinese medicine.


Salty taste snacks

Nowadays, many snacks are high in added salt. Too many salty taste snacks may imbalance how your kidneys and bladder function, causing problems ranging from oedema to cystitis.

cooked popcorn: usually too much salty taste
Salty taste snacks – definitely not good for your heart! (Or much anything else either.)

Your heart, itself nourished by blood, pumps blood round your body. Too much salt ‘thickens’ your blood, making it harder to pump. That affects the health of your heart. So – we know now – too much salty food is bad for your heart and circulation, which the Chinese realised 2500 years ago.

In case you wonder about popcorn, pictured above? Being corn it is described as a ‘sweet’ food, ‘benefiting’ your Earth element (Stomach and Large Intestine), also your Water element – Kidney energy and Blood and Qi.

So that’s all good, isn’t it?

But because of that mixture of salt and sweet,  you eat too much of it, so damaging your Earth and Water elements. So you’ll put on weight and age faster.

Well, that’s not so good, after all.

But you do need some ‘salty taste’ foods.

Moral? Don’t add salt to what you eat or cook!

If the food itself has ‘salty’ qualities, you’ll get enough salt from it.

I appreciate that for many of us, adapting to not adding salt to food when cooking or eating it takes a while – during which food seems tasteless. But your health will benefit in the long term and you’ll probably seem to age more slowly.

Mind you, if you live in a desert and/or perspire heavily from activity or the environment, you may need additional salt – but if your body is otherwise healthy, it will soon tell you which taste you need more of.

Also, old people noticeably like more salt as their taste buds deteriorate, but even here, if they take more foods of the other flavours, in balance, they may train their taste buds. Possibly they’ll live longer too!


Here’s a list of foods classified as having the salty taste in Chinese medicine

Here is a list of ‘naturally salty’ foods but! – if you skipped all the above guff, the list is not complete and you’d better crawl back a few paragraphs to find out why.

Also, many of the salty taste foods listed have other taste qualities. Abalone, for instance, is also described as ‘sweet’ tasting.

abalone - naturally salty taste food
Cooking abalone
alfalfa sprout
clam (freshwater)
clam (seawater)
dandelion leaf
dandelion root


Pigeon, a salty snack
Pigeon, good for Yin and Qi (Water phase) but also Liver Blood
soya sauce
Jonathan Brand colours

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