The Flavors of Nature and How They Influence Your Health

The best part of my job is helping people get back in tune with their own bodies.

It's a skill like anything else, that process of reconnecting. But truthfully, we disconnect from ourselves for a number of reasons, and so it can take years to reawaken that relationship. I love using the natural world as a way to reopen the senses and rekindle that awareness.

Our senses do much more than add nuance and spice to our lives. While here in the US we tend to eat a pretty bland diet, we have evolved as humans to be able to identify distinct flavors, as the distribution of our taste buds would tell us. On a very reflexive level, our body responds to these flavors, extracting very valuable information about our environment, safety, and whether that food meets a particular bodily need. Flavor and smell in particular, imprint themselves deeply on our memory, and mix with our highest and lowest degree of memories. That is, we are meant to retain the information we gather from the flavors of plants in our environment. We are meant to use that as a guide. But for many of us, our association between flavors and our body response are long lost in the crevices of our most primal knowing.

If you were ever curious, here is some of the information you can derive from the flavors in the plants you encounter:

Bitter: This powerful flavor in plants tells us a lot about their medicinal value. Usually indicating the presence of potent chemical constituents like alkaloids, tannins, sesquiterpene lactones, etc, bitter is a flavor many either love or despise. Truthfully, the helpfulness of bitter flavor is very dose dependent. Simply thinking of a bitter green touching your tongue may make you begin to salivate just a bit more. Medicinally, bitter Spring greens like young dandelion or yellowdock leaves can be a welcome addition to the diet to stimulate the digestive process and make sure things are running smoothly. Large quantities of bitter, on the other hand, may overstimulate the gut, and/or be indicators of noxious substances in the plant. Power to our ancestors that did the taste-testing to help us tell the difference!

Sweet: Sweet was one of the best indicators to our ancestors that what we were devouring was a very quick, direct shot of calories. The sweetness of fruits, berries, and milder "sweetness" of grains told us there was solid food source to be had. We are wired to love sugar, so it's no wonder that this is a point of craving (and sometimes addiction) for many in the Western World. We are designed to respond to stress by "alleviating starvation," If only for a minute. From an herbal perspective, roots and tubers are often "sweeter" in nature and an indication of complex carbohydrate content that our gut bacteria simply *loves*. Wild but mild sweetness can be found this time of year in wild carrot roots, an in the pithy red partridgeberries still speckling the forest floor (see photo)

Salty: This flavor tells us a lot about the mineral content of herbs and foods. You can expect higher electrolyte content, and interestingly enough, many herbs that have a predominantly salty flavor or undertone also have medicinal actions that influence the urinary system, which is responsible for controlling water and electrolytes in the body. (think the underlying flavor of parsley, celery, or nettles)

Sour: This mouth-puckering flavor is generally an indication of a lower pH, or more acidic plant. It is also an indication of certain acidic plant constituents. In wild plants like wood sorrel and fresh chickweed (both a delicious addition to any spring salad), the lemony taste you experience is indication of their oxalic acid content. That tartness you find in wild blueberries or rosehips tell you a lot about their ascorbic acid content (AKA Vitamin C).

Umami: One flavor to rule them all, umami refers to the receptors we have on our tongue that, when stimulated, enhance the overall flavor of the food we are eating. These are the receptors targeted by MSG additives in processed food. Certain plants and algae (like seaweed) have constituents that stimulate these receptors, making that miso soup taste oh so good.

I hope my descriptions have encouraged you to be perhaps more adventurous in your food tasting and testing. This Spring season offers much to entice you, so get outside and enjoy!


Dr. Potvin

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