Sweet Taste in Chinese medicine

Foods classified as having a sweet taste in Chinese medicine are vital for health. But too little or too much ‘sweet’ food leads to disease.
vegetable dish with mainly sweet taste in Chinese medicine

Sweet taste in Chinese medicine

Foods classified as having the ‘sweet’ taste in Chinese medicine benefit your ‘Earth’, ie your ‘Spleen and Stomach’ energies.

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

For more on these important subjects, click on Earth, Spleen function and Stomach function. Knowing more about them will help you understand why the sweet taste, and foods classified as ‘sweet’, are important.

Your Earth element, your Spleen and Stomach, look after your digestion and how well you make Blood and energy from what you eat. In turn that Blood goes to nourish your flesh, in particular your musculature.

If you don’t eat enough foods of the sweet taste in Chinese medicine, or what you eat is of poor quality, (or your digestion is poor)

  • your flesh and muscles won’t develop the rounded healthy sheen we associate with healthy youth,
  • damaged skin won’t regenerate so sores will develop and of course …
  • your energy will suffer.
  • you will age faster (for example, your hair will thin, or not grow lustrously)
  • Without healthy Blood your personality will have problems with stability and resilience,
  • you’ll tend to be more anxious (your Heart and equilibrium depend on healthy Blood) and
  • Your concentration and memory will suffer.

 

(As many schoolteachers know, under-nourished or malnourished children can’t concentrate or behave properly. When given food, or at least better-quality food, the children settle more easily and enjoy life more. Also, they complain less and learn more.)

Benefits of a long tradition

woman in white and red floral dress standing near red and brown temple during daytime
~Handing down traditions

2500 years ago the Chinese worked this out and learned which foods benefited the Spleen and Stomach, which they described as having the ‘sweet’ taste. (Not that all such foods actually taste sweet, and you must also remember that modern tastes have been disordered by artificial flavours and too much of one and not enough of another particular taste, which makes our experience of taste rather lop-sided.)

A colleague decided to bring up his two young daughters using firm principles of food taste according to Chinese medicine. I met them when they were around 5 or 6. When offered pudding,  after politely tasting it, they pushed it away: it was too sweet – they just weren’t used to it! Those two children seldom got ill, and if they did, they recovered faster than their peers. In particular, they seemed never to suffer from phlegm. If they got ill, which was rare, they generated a fever, burned out the ‘bug’ and then got better: sometimes all within just a few hours. (But then, they had never, as far as I know, been inoculated against anything, probably another huge bonus for their immune systems.)

So what do ‘sweet’ foods do for you? (Please realise that I do NOT mean artificial sweeteners, sugar or honey etc! I mean foods like those listed below, classified as ‘sweet’ in Chinese medicine.) Of course, many foods have other tastes too – for example asparagus is classified as also being slightly ‘bitter’.

When taken in balance with foods of other tastes … “Sweet” foods:

  • Promote healthy Qi and Blood
  • Stimulate circulation
  • Provide your body with the means to build flesh and bone: ie nourishment!
  • Moisten your tissues, including joints and skin
  • Help your body build resilience and stamina
  • Give quality to your Blood with vitamins, minerals, oils, enzymes, proteins and carbohydrates

 

Below is a list of ‘sweet’ foods. It’s not complete.

Far more foods are ‘sweet’ than in any other taste category, indicating its importance. Indeed, because the sweet taste helps you digest food (it ‘harmonises’ foods of the other flavours, along the lines of ‘a teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down!’) so you could say that every meal should contain some ‘sweet’ foods.

Various other factors influence how sweet a given food is, such as

  • where the food was grown,
  • its climate,
  • at what stage of growth it was picked,

 

Wholesale storage of food etc

  • for how long and in what way it has been stored and
  • how any artificial substances (fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides) may have affected it.

 

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

  • Baking and roasting food makes it hotter.
  • Steaming it can make it cooler than otherwise. Lamb, for example is regarded as a ‘hot’ food, so roasting it makes it even hotter in its effect.

 

Many different kinds of sweet taste food

Some sweet taste foods are building, other cleansing. Foods known to build protein are the building foods, whereas fruits and most sweeteners are cleansing.

Reading through the list below you’ll see the sweet flavour includes many foods or liquids with marked differences.

For example, beef and fennel seeds are both sweet, and work on your Earth element – your Spleen and Stomach functions – but in different ways. Beef is full of protein, whereas fennel is a herb and has no protein in it, or precious little. The former helps build muscle, the latter inclines the Earth element to work more efficiently. In addition, fennel is also listed as pungent and warming, whereas beef is neutral in temperature.

Another problem is that many foods, especially fruits (and amongst fruits especially berries and grapes) are now bred to accentuate the sweet taste whereas they used to be more sour – but their sourness is being bred out of them. So grapefruit, traditionally classified as sweet but also sour, is becoming less sour and more sweet.

Also, in the past, the pip or seed carried a bitter taste, compensating for a fruit’s sweetness, but now you can often buy seedless grapes, so even that source of compensating bitterness is going.

Therefore, many sweet foods are becoming sweeter, making us eat more of them, when in the past people might have realised they’d had enough because of the other ‘balancing’ tastes naturally present.

The Consequences of Too Much Sweet Food

With this increase in sweetness, we may confidently expect an increase in the problems arising when Spleen and Stomach energies are over-stimulated.

Too much sweet taste in Chinese medicine?
Beware eating too many seedless, over-sweet foods!

For example, we’ll become slower, more lethargic, more phlegmy and more prone to Damp. Too much sweet taste food is also Heating. Believe me, you don’t want Phlegm-Heat or Damp-Heat, which produce problems ranging from cystitis to sinusitis – and much else. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics for these syndromes though they respond well to Chinese herbs and acupuncture.

In addition, we’ll suffer from more cysts, tumours and swellings. Our digestions will become heavier and we’ll become sleepier after meals than we used to be. 

(Well … perhaps … as an old sailor said, ‘All time not spent in sleep is wasted!’?)

That means we’ll probably resort to more stimulants, like coffee – but that’s not all good either: see my page on coffee.

Here’s a list of Sweet Taste Foods per the experience of Chinese Culture and medicine:

abalone

aduki beans

agar

algae

almond

amarynth

amasake

anchovy

aniseed

apple

apricot

artichoke

asparagus

aubergine

avocado

bamboo shoot

banana

barley

basil

beef

beer

beetroot

bilberry

black bens

black fungus

blackberry

blackcurrant

broad bens

brown sugar

buckwheat

butter

cabbage

caraway

cardamon

carp

carob

carrot

celery

chamomile

cheese

Cherry

chestnut

chicken

Chinese cabbage

cinnamon twig

 

chickpeas

clam

coconut

coconut milk

coffee

corn

courgette

crabapple

cranberry

cucumber

daikon (mooli)

dandelion leaf

dandelion root

dang gui

date

duck

eel

egg of chicken

egg of duck

elderflower

fennel seed

fig

flax

frog

garlic

ginseng (American, Chinese and Korean)

gooseberry

gooseberry

grape

grapefruit

hawthorn berry

hazel

herring

honey

jasmine

job’s tears

juniper

kale

kidney (beef)

kidney (sheep)

kidney beans

kohlrabi

lamb

leek

lentils

lettuce

licorice

lima beans

limeflower

linseed

Liver (sheep)

liver( beef)

lobster

longan

lychee

mackerel

malt sugar

marjoram

marrow

melon

milk (cow)

milk (sheep and goat)

millet

molasses

mulberry

mung beans

mung bean sprouts

mushroom

mussel

mutton

nettle

nori

oats

octopus

olive

olive oil

orange

oregano

oyster

papaya

parsnip

peach

peanut

peanut oil

peas

pepper (black)

persimmon

pheasant

pigeon

pine kernel

pineapple

pistachio

plantain

plum

pomegranate

pork

potato

prawn

pumpkin

pumpkin seed

quail

quinoa

rabbit

radish

raspberry

rice

rice syrup

rosemary

royal jelly

salmon

sardine

savory (herb)

sesame (both black and white)

sesame oil

shiitake mushroom

shrimp

sorghum

soya oil

soybeans (black and yellow)

sparrow

spelt

spinach

squash

star anise

strawberry

string beans

sturgeon

sunflower seed

sweet potato

tangerine

tea

tofu

tomato

turkey

turnip

walnut

water chestnut

watermelon

wheat

wheat bran

white sugar

whitefish

wild rice

wine

yam

yogurt

Other pages to read:

 

 

 

Jonathan Brand colours

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