2500 years ago, Chinese medicine recognised the daily importance in your diet of foods with a sour taste.
Mostly we think of sour foods or drinks during warm weather, Summer, for example, to cool us down. For instance, we sip lemonade, or we put a piece of lemon or orange in our drinks. Fruit is naturally a bit sour, and we eat more fruit during hot weather.
Fermented food is also sour and we use it, in the form of natural yogurt, kefir or lassi to complement and cool spicy hot dishes like curry.
Sorbet puddings are sour, and ideally taken between or after dishes of warming foods to make the meal more balanced and digestible.
Here’s what the Huang Di Nei Jing Su wen (written between 2000 and 2500 years ago) says about how the sour taste fits into your health:
“The spirit, in heaven it is wind, on earth it is wood, in man’s body it is sinews. Among organs it is the liver; among colours it is greenish; among tones it is jue; among voices it is shouting; among movements [indicating] changes it is grasping; among orifices it is the eye; among flavours it is sour; among states of mind it is anger.” (Chapter 5, translated by Unschuld and Tessenow.)
The function of your Liver energy, in Chinese medicine, is to enable Qi to flow and to store Blood. When Qi can’t flow freely you get symptoms of stress, tension, irritability or, as the text says, anger – and this tightens up your musculature, particularly your tendons or sinews, making you more susceptible to pulled muscles, cramps and spasms – also arguments and raised voices (shouting).
When your Liver can’t store Blood you may get insomnia, eyesight problems, and headaches, including migraines. You get restless and can’t settle. And it may make you more grasping, more selfish.
Read more about how your Liver affects you.
Too much sour food is cooling, and tightening. Sour astringes. So it tightens things up and stops leakage of both fluids and energy. (Having some sour food in your daily diet therefore helps you use energy more conservatively. I often recommend apple cider vinegar – daily – for people who try to do too many things at once, or disperse their efforts over too many projects.)
But not enough sour food weakens your digestion, and while the ancient Chinese observed this, they may not have known quite why.
But now we do know why!
Around 80% of your immune force, your immunity, stems from your digestion, your intestines and bowels. Ideally there is a balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forces. Too much ‘sweet’ food can be calamitous for your digestion and health – you may get something called SIBO – Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth!
Eating more sour food helps us manage or control our craving for sweet food.
Another way it works you’ll notice when you eat Japanese or Korean food. With this they offer pickles and kimchee, which is a traditional fermented food. (Again! … Read more about the benefits of fermented food here.)
If you can get the balance right in your digestion then your good bugs will keep the bad bugs at bay, you’ll feel lighter, in need of less food, and sleep better. You’ll take better decisions too!
You can get more of the sour taste by eating foods which are naturally sour. So add lemon juice and vinegar to foods to make them more digestible, for example when added to greasy or fatty food, or to deep-fried or battered fish.
Many pickled foods are foods that have been stored in vinegar or salt, but for the best sour-tasting food, and most beneficial, eat foods made sour through fermentation. Here’s another link to how to ferment food.
As I said, fruit tends to be sour, and that’s what makes it refreshing. But modern tastes have made fruit growers develop fruit strains that are sweeter than in the past, catering to our craving for sweet food.
Be careful! I doubt if very sweet fruit is as effective as regards sourness as earlier strains of the same fruit.
Berries used to be sour, even tart, and needed a little sugar with them. Nowadays, they hardly need sugar, which is a pity, because berries used to be ideal ‘sour’ foods.
Grapes also, are now sweeter than they used to be. Don’t eat too many sweet grapes – or any fruit that is grown to be very sweet.
I knew a very rugged man, ex-United States Army Green Berets (who, like the British Commandos undertake special operations in warfare).
He grew sweet tomatoes and sweet grapes on his Bulgarian small-holding.
Thinking his lifestyle (mainly outdoors – plants and animals) was very healthy, he sometimes ate only his tomatoes and grapes for days.
Eventually he got seriously ill with heart-disease, then diabetes, leading to circulatory problems in his feet (gangrene) and had to have his lower legs amputated.
So, our taste for sweet food has made us develop new foods that lack the balancing tastes that would make us eat only ‘enough’.
After all, even on hot days, would you eat nothing but very sour food – lemons? Surely not! – because a little sourness goes a long way!
I’ve had patients who came because of their craving for sour food. Almost always this improved when their Liver energy was treated, bringing both it and them back into better harmony.
By the way, for some of them, a contributing factor to balance was eating more ‘bitter’ foods. Although bitter foods mostly affect your Fire energies, those of your Heart and Small intestines, they also help your Liver and Gallbladder.
Also, Five Element theory (see 5 Element acupuncture theory for more on this) suggests that if someone has an imbalanced taste for sourness in their diet, regulating the amount of spicy, pungent or acrid food may help.
However, remember that many foods have several tastes as well as other properties. Tomatoes, for example, are both sour and sweet – and Cold. (Click Cold for more on other foods that are cooling.)
Please remember when reading the list below that all foods vary in their qualities (eg in how sour they are, their nutritional qualities etc.) depending on how and where they are grown, the climate, and when they are harvested and how they are stored before they reach you.
Deep-freezing then quickly warming them before putting them on display affects them too.
If you grow food yourself you can harvest it when it’s exactly ready: it will probably taste better too!
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