Balancing Tastes Is Just As Important as Balancing Nutrients

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As a nutrition student, I learned the importance of balancing nutrients for good health.  In culinary school, I learned something equally as important: including a wide variety of tastes in each meal is essential to satisfaction.  In our day and society, satisfaction is at the heart of enjoying good food in moderation and not wanting for more after leaving the table.  

I would even go so far as to say that making a habit of including a variety of tastes in each meal might play a role in weight management.  When you incorporate a variety of tastes in each meal, you aren't left wanting for more, craving some of the tastes that weren't included.  

Case in point: Yogurt with granola and fruit seems like a nutritionally balanced breakfast, right?  But it's not tastefully balanced.  It's all sweet and perhaps a little bit of sour if you are using a plain Greek yogurt.  If you enjoy a yogurt parfait for breakfast regularly, do you find yourself seeking a snack a few hours later? Perhaps you are rummaging about for salty foods late in the afternoon?

I think you get where I'm going with this.  

The Six Tastes--sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent--stem from Ayurveda, one of the oldest medicine systems in the world, practiced in India. Other Asian cultures also practice, in slightly different ways, the concept of including all the tastes at one meal.  

While we didn't get into the nitty gritty of Ayurvedic nutrition in my natural chef program, we did talk plenty about the idea of balancing as many tastes as possible in one meal.  I can tell you from experience that my cooking benefited dramatically from making this practice a habit, and so did my level of content after eating meals.

So, here's a rundown of The Six Tastes and examples of foods that fall into each category.  You don't have to knock yourself out trying to get each and every one into each and every meal, but at least take a stab at the idea of adding a variety of tastes to each meal. Perhaps you can get in at least three or four.

Sweet
No need to explain what sweet is.  You all get that.  The important note is how you sweeten your food.  Focus on getting sweetness into your meals from naturally sweet whole foods, like bananas, dates, roasted vegetables, milk products and grains such as rice. You can also rely on moderate amounts of natural sweeteners like honey and molasses.  I think you'll be amazed to find that adding sweetness to your meals might decrease your craving for dessert.

Sour
Sour foods provide that "tang" flavor.  We're finally starting to see more sour in the average American diet.  Examples of healthful sour foods to include in your meals include citrus fruits, vinegars, pickled and fermented foods and, yes, wine!  So, don't feel bad about making your glass of wine with dinner your sour contribution.  

Bitter
Many people don't like bitter foods, but when you incorporate this taste amongst the others it becomes balanced and likable.  Green leafy vegetables, spices (eg, turmeric) and herbs (eg, dandelion root), and certain varieties of fruit such as grapefruit and olives are great examples.  And let's not forget some of our favorite beverages, like coffee and tea.

Salty
Just like sweet, salty tends to be one of the tastes we overdo in a meal.  However, salt should not be demonized. It is essential to our health and bringing out the flavor in our food.  Healthful sources of the salty taste include fish and shellfish, sea vegetables (seaweeds), tamari and black olives.

Pungent
This may be a word you're not as familiar with, but the taste profile you are. Pungent equals heat and includes many of the flavoring agents used in your favorite cuisines, like hot peppers, ginger, onions, garlic, mustard and hot spices like cayenne and chili powder.  

Astringent
This is the taste that was hardest for me to understand and identify which foods contain it.  I think that's because astringent is a tongue feel you get from foods moreso than a taste.  Astringent foods are the ones you pucker at when eating. They contribute dryness.  Examples are vast across the different food groups and include beans and lentils, pomegrante and cranberries, cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, grains such as buckwheat and quinoa and, again, coffee and tea. 

And one last note...you can also go by the more Western approach of the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory, characterized by the taste of broths and cooked meats).  The take-away message is preparing and eating meals with a variety of tastes.

Give this practice a whirl and let me know if you notice a difference.  I'd love to hear about your experience.