The Five Flavors of TCM

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a dynamic, highly sophisticated system of knowledge. Developed and practiced for thousands of years, TCM provides a framework for the preservation and recovery of health and well-being for all. One of the helpful keys within this vast body of knowledge is the Five Phase Theory.

The Five Phase Theory was introduced over 2,000 years ago and is the foundation of many Chinese practices such as acupuncture and herbal medicine. This theory explains the relationship and interplay between five universal elements found in all things in life- from the microcosm of cells in the body to the macrocosm of the universe. When these elements are not in balance, disease and difficulty manifest. When they are in balance, health and vitality thrive.

The five elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. They correlate to just about all aspects of life- nature, the seasons, our body parts and systems, our emotions and soul, the classification of herbs, and even the flavors of the food we eat.

The five flavors of TCM are a blueprint to a balanced diet. With skill, they can be used to restore health and bring balance to body, mind, and soul.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at Each of These Five Flavors:


The mouth-puckering flavor of Sour is one that is easily remembered. Thinking about the puckering action the face and mouth take when a strong sour flavor is tasted can give you clues as to the effect Sour has on the body. Sour is astringent, meaning it constricts, stabilizes, and tones. It is known for helping prevent abnormal leakage of fluids, so it is helpful in cases of excess sweating, mucus, inflammation, and even diarrhea. Because of its connection to the Liver and stress, sour flavors can also help calm the mind when stressed or irritated.

Sour is Associated with:
  • The Wood Element
  • Liver and Gallbladder Meridians
  • Anger
  • Springtime

Sour can be found in lemons, limes, kiwi, pickles, and sauerkraut.

Sour herbs include hawthorn (shan zha), schizandra (wu wei zi), and lemon balm.


The bitter flavor is something that many people shy away from. Our ancestors associated bitter flavors with toxic substances, so we evolved to avoid them as well. It is not prominent in American cuisine, for example, but it plays a vital role in the circle of five flavors.

Bitter flavors have a drying, cooling, and draining effect on the body, especially in cases of excess heat or dampness. Bitter flavors also increase the production of gastric acid, making them helpful in supporting the digestive system.

Bitter is Associated with:
  • The Fire element
  • Heart and Small Intestine Meridians
  • Mania/Overjoy
  • Summertime

Bitter foods include dandelion greens, celery, bitter melon, coffee, cacao, tea, and parsley.

Bitter herb examples include mugwort (ai ye), chrysanthemum (ju hua), and chamomile.


For many folks, the thought of a favorite “sweet” treat brings happy feelings. Who doesn’t love a good candy bar or dessert? Here, however, we are talking about the sweet flavor found in whole foods, not refined forms of sugar found in most processed food.

The sweet flavor tonifies, harmonizes, and moistens. Sweet is warming and expansive, aids in digestion, and is good for low energy, tension, and depression. However, due to its rich and cloying nature, sweet flavors also cause stagnation, dampness, and phlegm in the body. It is important to eat a balanced amount of sweets to avoid issues caused by damp or phlegm such as candida, growths such as tumors, cysts, and fibroids, or excess weight.

Sweet is Associated with:
  • The Earth Element
  • Spleen and Stomach meridians
  • Worry
  • Late Summer or Times of Seasonal Transition

Sweet foods include potatoes, carrots, corn, grains, and honey.

Sweet herbs include licorice (gan cao), dang gui, and jujube dates (da zao).


Acrid, pungent, and spicy are all associated with this interesting flavor profile.

In autumn, one can watch the leaves on trees turn color, dry up and disperse off the tree. In the body, acrid flavors have a similar movement – they are moving, drying, and disperse energy or accumulations of fluid. Acrid flavors can promote sweating, which is quite helpful when kicking pathogens out at the first sign of illness, for example. Acrid also aids in circulation and breaking up stagnation of qi or blood, but overuse can cause dryness.

Acrid is Associated with:
  • the Metal element
  • Lung and Large Intestine Meridians
  • Grief
  • Fall

Acrid foods include onion, garlic, chiles, ginger, radish and cabbage.

Acrid herb examples include peppermint (bo he), cinnamon (rou gui) and rosemary.


The salty flavor is the taste of the sea. This flavor purges softens hardness and phlegm and has the unique ability to enter the Kidney channel. Salty flavors are cooling, moistening, and detoxifying to the body. They help to calm and anchor the mind, so they can also be helpful for those with mental health concerns.

Including salt in our diet can be beneficial, but overuse injures the body. The Standard American Diet is already very high in salt, so it is easy to consume in excess. It is always best to ingest whole food sources of salt (in moderation) instead of industrially produced and processed sources. Because of its influence on water and fluids of the body, those with edema, high blood pressure, lethargy, and weight issues should use it with caution.

Salty is Associated with:
  • The Water element
  • Kidney and Urinary Bladder Meridians
  • Fear
  • Winter

Salty foods include all seaweeds, miso, eggs, seafood, and brined veggies such as olives.

Salty herb examples include oyster shell (mu li), dragon’s blood (xue jie), and nettles.

When we incorporate a balance of all five flavors into a meal, the food is an expression of harmony and we will feel more satisfied with our overall well-being. We can create a healthier, more balanced lifestyle simply by incorporating all five flavors into our daily diet.

Because all bodies are different, the balance of flavor that is best for you will depend on your personal constitution and current health issues. You can learn more about how Traditional Chinese Medicine can support you and your health by visiting the PIHMA Clinic.

Author: Liana MacNeill


Class notes and slideshow presentations from Oriental Medicine Theory 1-3 and Fundamentals of Herbalism courses, PIHMA, 2020-2021.

Bauer, I., & Zappin, B. (2021, May 11). The Five Flavors in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Five Flavors Herbs. https://fiveflavorsherbs.com/blog/the-five-flavors-in-traditional-chinese-medicine/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwktKFBhCkARIsAJeDT0jC8FuZYiGYXMwEEuqobqrTgouV5yGudJTNEF_j8kw862eR4lfgzhcaAizXEALw_wcB

Sydney Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (2019, November 21). HOW THE 5 FLAVOURS OF TCM & WHOLE FOODS INFLUENCE BETTER HEALTH. SITCM – Explore Your Future. https://www.sitcm.edu.au/blog/how-the-5-flavours-of-tcm-whole-foods-influence-better-health/

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