The Tastes of Food

Swanie Simon

The Sense of Taste

Among other things, the tongues of dogs and cats are used for gustatory perception. There are five different types of papillae covering the tongue. Some of these papillae contain taste buds. Dogs have comparatively few taste buds (1700) as opposed to humans (9000). Most of the dog’s taste buds are located at the tip of the tongue. Cats have even fewer taste buds than dogs (470) and cannot taste sweet. Cat tongues are also sensitive to the texture of foods, and cats will decline foods with a texture they do not know or like. Unlike humans, both dogs and cats have special taste buds for the taste of water. Whereas humans and many animals have a strong response to a salty taste, dogs and cats have a much weaker response to salty tastes, most likely because as carnivores, they receive enough salt through their natural diets.

The sense of taste generally encompasses four tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Today the taste umami (savory) is recognized as a separate and fifth taste. The savory taste receptors respond to glutamate and aspartic acid. Research is being done to establish whether there are separate taste receptors for fats as well as the tastes of metallic, watery and alkaline. The taste “spicy“ or “hot“ is not actually a taste in the physiological sense, but rather a pain reaction of the nerves to the feeling of the hot temperature.

The Tastes

In TCM and other holistic medicinal systems, the “tastes” are of special importance. Each taste has a specific action, effect and direction in the body. The taste influences the body temperature, general vitality, the body fluids and structures or mass. One needs all tastes in nutrition to keep the body in homeostasis. A diet with a very one sided taste is unbalanced over time and will cause illness. Understanding how tastes affect the organism can be useful in regaining and maintaining optimal health.

In TCM the tastes are usually divided in sweet, salty, sour, acrid and bitter. In Ayurveda, the taste astringent is also described. The tastes in TCM are also matched to the elements as follows:

  • Sweet / Earth
  • Salty / Water
  • Sour / Wood
  • Acrid / Metal
  • Bitter / Fire

We all know that too many sweets will cause obesity! The sweet taste is nourishing and warm and helps build the fluids and mass. Sweet is moistening, so in reasonable quantities sweet food will help maintain the mucosa and build blood. In excess sweet will cause a buildup of phlegm and thicken the blood. Waste accumulates in tissues and causes inflammation. Sweet foods in small amounts are useful to strengthen weak, underweight animals who are dry and lacking in body heat and strength. Animals that are hot and/or obese should have very limited amounts of sweet foods.
Carbohydrates, sweet tasting vegetables and fruits as well as honey and sugar are all considered sweet foods.

Water follows salt. Wherever salt is concentrated in the body, the tissues will attract water. For this reason, it is said that the salty taste softens, for example cysts. Because water is cooling and salt attracts water, salty is considered cooling and moistening. The direction of salty is downward, therefore salty foods can push digestion downwards and be considered laxative.
Salty foods and herbs are those with a high mineral content, especially sodium, i.e. kelp or nettles.

Sour tends to be astringent. In TCM sour is considered cooling but in Ayurveda warming. Chinese medicine considers astringent to be a part of the sour taste but Ayurveda has a separate taste for astringent. Many astringent foods and herbs are also sour, but many are not, so the Ayurvedic view is probably somewhat more accurate. For example, lemons are sour and astringent, but oak bark is astringent without being sour.
Astringents hold the fluids in the tissues, so they can be cooling. On the other hand, astringents can stimulate the metabolism and could therefore be warming for some people and pets. Sour foods are used to detoxify and in combination with sweet foods to build-up the body fluids.

The acrid taste is warming, drying and burns fat. It stimulates digestion, aids in the cleansing of impurities in the body and by burning fat it helps warm the body.
Acrid distributes, in other words brings energy, warmth and nutrients to the peripheral tissues. Acrid helps remove mucus buildup as it drys, stimulates, and warms the metabolism and appetite. Many acrid foods and herbs have high levels of essential oils. Ginger is a good example of an acrid food. Garlic is one of the best remedies for detoxification, pneumonia and to reduce mucus or phlegm buildup. Caution must be exercised using acrid foods and herbs with cats because of their essential oil content, which can present problems for cats.


The bitter taste is one of the most important for our animals. Bitter cools and dries, moves downwards or in the case of animals towards the rear, and is very detoxifying. There are some warm bitters like Angelica, Calamus or Curcuma. Bitter stimulates saliva secretion, which in turn stimulates digestive juices, thus aiding in digestion and disinfection of raw foods in the stomach.
Healthy stomach juices are an important defense of carnivores against bacteria and parasites in food. Many dogs today suffer from low stomach acidity which can be corrected through diet and the use of bitters. Bitters cool the “hot“ stomach that is often experienced with stomach acid problems. Bitters also stimulate the liver and gallbladder, thus aiding in fat digestion and detoxification.
Bitters can work wonders when added to our pet’s diets. Many animals actively seek out bitter plants when they have digestive problems or parasites. Simply adding dandelion leaves, burdock roots or other nutritive bitter plants and foods to our pet’s diets will help keep them healthier.

© Swanie Simon

Created with