If you’ve ever drank a cup of Chinese Herbs, you know they taste unique. It can range from strong tea, to cinnamon and ginger, to very twiggy and quite bitter.
Over the thousands of years of Chinese medicine, scholars have classified herbs according to taste and temperature to describe their healing function. The traditional way to test if the herb is of high quality is by tasting it. This process is called organoleptics.
Sophisticated Chinese medicine doctors and herbal pharmacists know an herb’s quality from tasting, smelling, and the look of the herbs.
The flavors of Chinese herbs are more than just what they taste like. It describes the describe their qualities and actions which the herbs have on health. Sweet, bitter, acrid, sour, and bland are the most common flavors with Chinese medicine. They each have a specific function within the herbal formula.
The Flavors of Herbs
There are 5 flavors, corresponding to the functional organs in the body as well as the 5 elements.
1. Sweet tonifies, relates to the Earth and Spleen. This is because sweet tonifies qi.
2. Sour is astringent, relates to Wood and the Liver. Sour herbs have been shown to have antioxidant properties.
3. Bitter drains, relates to Fire and Heart. Bitter drains heat and fire. These herbs are often anti-inflammatory.
4. Acrid and aromatic herbs release the exterior and can improve digestion. Acrid herbs relate to the lung and metal.
5. Salty herbs soften hardness and relate to the Kidney and water.
This does not mean sweet herbs are sweet, although some are like gan cao (licorice). Rather they are sweet in nature. For example, huang qi (astragalus), does not taste very sweet at all but it very strongly tonifies the qi.
Temperatures of herbs
Herbs are also classified by their temperature. For example, mint feels cooling, so it would be a cold herb, while hot peppers are hot, so it is a hot herbs.
The flavors and feelings an herb gives off, as well as the body’s reaction to the herbs factor into this process, dictated what the taste and temperature of the herbs. Cold herbs will be used to clear heat and many cold herbs often have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
1. Liao H, Banbury LK, Leach DN. Antioxidant activity of 45 Chinese herbs and the relationship with their TCM characteristics. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med.2008;5(4):429-434; PMID: 18955214.
2. Qiu S, Sun H, Zhang AH, et al. Natural alkaloids: basic aspects, biological roles, and future perspectives. Chin J Nat Med.2014;12(6):401-406; PMID: 24969519.
3. Muluye RA, Bian Y, Alemu PN. Anti-inflammatory and Antimicrobial Effects of Heat-Clearing Chinese Herbs: A Current Review. J Tradit Complement Med.2014;4(2):93-98; PMID: 24860732.