by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.
Remember the last time you lifted a perfectly ripe sweet piece of fruit to your mouth? The smell filling your mind with anticipation, the sweet juice filling your soul with pleasure and satisfaction? Then you know something of the rasa or sap of life. Our experience of life is called rasa in Ayurveda. Rasa is a multivalent term which can indicate the sap, the juice, the essence, the emotion and/or the flavour or taste of an herb, our food, or our life experience.
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent, but in this article we will focus on the sweet taste. Taste is the heart of the Ayurvedic classification system of foods and herbs. So let’s explore how the sweet taste gives us important clues about the attributes, effects and actions a substance will have when ingested.
The general rule is that a sweet-tasting food or herb indicates the attributes (guna) of cold, moist and heavy and implies the corresponding effects of coldness, wetness, and heaviness when ingested. Therefore if someone is suffering from the attributes of too much heat, dryness and/or lightness, sweet-tasting foods and herbs could provide an antidote.
On the other hand, if one were to eat only sweet tasting foods, they could become too cold, too damp (think mucus) and too heavy/congested. However, there are exceptions to the above rules which can be due to a substance’s prabhav (uniqueness) or due to the blending of more than one taste.
It’s important to distinguish simple sweet taste and complex sweet taste. Simple sweets like refined sugar are considered too strong and disturbing for regular use. And instead of a heavy nourishing effect they are empty of real nourishment. The end result of overuse of simple sweets could be obesity, lethargy, inability to concentrate, excess mucus, loss of appetite, parasites and diabetes.
Complex sweet tasting foods include proteins, complex carbs, fats and sweet-tasting fruits, vegetables and herbs. In fact, most of our food is considered sweet, nourishing and satisfying. Proteins, complex carbs and fats are heavy, nourishing, and slow to digest. Fruits, vegetables and herbs are generally lighter, provide more subtle forms of nourishment and are quicker to digest.
Just as simple sugars are considered disturbing, too much flesh food, animal fat or refined oils are also considered disturbing. So the discriminating palate will seek high-quality proteins, complex carbs, and high-quality fats and oils. The emphasis is on quality over quantity and a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet.
Important Sweet-Tasting Foods & Herbs
Whole Grains: Whole grains are mostly neutral in temperature, moistening, nourishing (heavy), and slow to digest. Buckwheat or kasha however have the unique quality of being slighty warming so are excellent for cold climates. Buckwheat, corn, millet and rye are slightly drying so are better when there is too much dampness.
Natural Sweeteners: Good choices for natural sweeteners are dates, figs, raw honey, barley malt and rice syrup. They are all neutral in temperature except for honey and molasses which have a slightly heating prabhav (unique effect). They all produce heaviness (weight/nourishment) except for raw honey and maple syrup which have a light quality. Heating or cooking honey renders it heavy and hard to digest. The warm and light qualities of raw honey give it the property of cutting mucus and is therefore used to balance milk which is cold, moist and heavy.
Sweet Fruits: Sweet fruits and fruit juices can also be used as natural sweeteners. Most sweet, ripe fruit is cooling, moistening but not heavy, and quick to digest. Because they are so quick to digest, they may best be eaten alone to avoid indigestion. This is considered especially so for melons. The saying is “eat them alone or leave them alone.” Some fruits like avocado and banana and heavier and more unctuous and therefore are more moistening and slower to digest.
Sweet Vegetables: Vegetables tend to be more complex in taste and offer a wide variety. Sweet tasting veges like beets, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes and squash are all near neutral in temperature, moistening and nourishing. Cucumbers, sweet peppers and summer squash are less starchy and therefore lighter in quality and effect.
Protein/Whole Grain & Bean combinations: Ayurveda recommends complex plant-based protein combinations such as whole grain and bean combinations with vegetables. They offer a complex mixture of tastes, balanced nutrition, and complete protein. They are generally neutral in temperature (see above discussion of grains), moistening, nourishing and slow to digest. Amongst the beans, the sweetest are chickpeas, mung, red lentils, tofu and urad dahl. They are all slightly cool except for urad dahl which is slightly heating. They are all heavy except for red lentils and split mung beans which are prized for being lighter and easier to digest.
Supplemental Protein: In addition to whole grain and bean combinations it is important to include a supplemental source of animal protein in a well-rounded diet. Supplemental means it is secondary but not unimportant in the diet. The exact mix of plant-based vs. animal proteins varies according to the constitution and digestive strength of each individual.
Good choices are high quality dairy, poultry, eggs or fish. Flesh food is not recommended as it is too heating rather than cooling and can be disturbing to the mind if taken in excess. An exception is for those who live in a cold climate like Tibet, where even the monks will include some meat as their supplemental protein. For those who don’t want to eat meat, it can be important to use warming herbal tonics as a substitute. More on this later. Pork is one of the most heating, followed by beef, fatty fish like salmon, poultry, fish and then eggs. Dairy can be slightly warming if fermented. Most dairy is cool, moist and heavy and is traditionally favored for it’s sattwic effect on the mind. This point becomes moot if dairy is taken in excess or is not able to be digested properly. A purely vegan diet is not usually recommended by Ayurveda, but can be achieved as long as there is a source of vitamin B-12 in the diet.
Paneer: A traditional favorite is paneer or fresh made cheese curd. Bring a gallon of organic milk to a boil and then remove from the heat. Let some steam escape. Then return the milk to the flame twice more, bringing the milk back to a soft boil. After the third boil, add the juice of one or two organic lemons which will separate the curds from the whey. Pour the separated milk through a strainer lined with cheese cloth to catch the curds. The curds or paneer are delicious, easy-to-digest and not mucus-forming. The whey is an excellent kidney/bladder cleanser used especially for recurrent bladder infections.
Nuts, Seeds & Oils: This group is generally slightly warming, moistening (oily/lubricating), heavy and slow to digest. Sesame seeds, sesame oil and mustard oil are noted as especially heating and are therefore useful during cold weather. Avocado oil, coconut, coconut oil, clarified butter (ghee), olive oil, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil are slightly cooling and are favored during warm weather. Almonds can be rendered cooling be soaking and peeling. Flax seeds and flax oil are noted as a good vegetarian source of essential fatty acids. Flax seed, castor oil and psyllium seeds can be used for their laxative/purgative effects. Flax has the mildest effect and psyllium is slightly cooling.
All nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans have a special affinity to the deeper tissues of the body and especially to the reproductive tissues/hormones as witnessed by their ability to sprout. They offer special protection against hormone disruption and inflammation, and they have a special energizing tonic effect that supports the prana, tejas and ojas of the subtle body. Prana can be said to represent subtle air, tejas or agni represents subtle fire, and ojas represents subtle water. Our ability to repair, rebuild, reproduce, restore and rejuvenate depends on these subtle elements.
Demulcent Herbs: Dumulcent herbs are sweet tasting, cooling, moistening and soothing as opposed to rough. They can protect tissues and help mucus to ‘slide’ out of the body. Licorice root is used to balance out herbal formulas and teas. Marshmallow root and Slippery Elm are soothing to the throat and lungs and can have a tonifying/nourishing effect on the deeper tissues, especially the nerves.
Rejuvenative Tonic Herbs: Rejuvenative herbs have a pronounced tonifying/strenghtening effect on the deeper tissues of the physical body and the subtle body. Like the nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans mentioned above, they support prana, tejas and ojas and can help restore our reserves. They are often discussed along male/female lines, but can be interchanged according to their qualities. The feminine tonics are primarily cooling, moistening and nourishing. The so-called male tonics are primarily heating, moistening and nourishing. Shatavari (wild asparagus root), wild yam and rehmannia are noted ‘female’ rejuvenative tonics. Ashwagandha root (winter cherry), saw palmetto berry, and ginseng root are valuable ‘male’ tonics. The primary distinction is their virya or heating potency. The sanskrit word virya, by the way, is related to the English word virile. Amongst the ginsengs, red ginseng and aged ginsengs are considered much hotter and can be used in place of meat in the winter diet to provide inner warmth and resilience. It’s best not to take them during warm weather. American ginseng is considered to be cooler. Siberian ginseng or eleuthero root is only slightly warming and is best for long-term use. It’s recommended to consult your medical practitioner before taking any medicinal herbs.
It’s also recommended to put all of the above to the test. A list or article may be a good place to start, but every premise should be tested and re-tested against experience. With practice, taste and attention you will begin to notice many fine distinctions in quality and strength. In the end, each substance is unique just as each of us is unique.
“The wild woman of the forests
Discovered the sweet plums by tasting,
And brought them to her Lord...
...the Lord, seeing her heart,
Took the ruined plums from her hand.
She saw no difference between low and high,
Wanting only the milk of his presence...”
- Mirabai as translated by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield