Signatures…the Signatures of Food
Like people, foods have their own signatures that reveal much about their character. Foods give us valuable clues through their taste, color, shape, and their general character and appearance. Understanding how to read a food’s “signature” means we can use everyday foods to achieve better balance and vitality and to assist in a variety of health conditions.
The “Doctrine of Signatures”
Reading a plant’s signature seems today to be a long-lost art. But, for centuries, folk-medicine relied on the “doctrine of signatures”—the idea that the taste, shape, color, and appearance of plant foods suggest how they can be used as medicine. With little else to guide them, early folk-healers and wild-crafting herbalists looked at plants for clues, and they “read” their signatures to infer affinities with specific organ systems and potential medicinal actions.
The doctrine of signatures grew from a broader concept, the “doctrine of correspondence,” which saw all of life guided by an archetypal model. Emotions, organ systems, colors, and seasons were viewed to have a shared essence and correspondence in plant and animal life.1 It is interesting that the doctrine of correspondence and the doctrine of signatures guided Paracelsus (1493-1542) in the West to construct a materia medica that shared similar threads with ancient Indian ayurveda and Chinese Five-Phase theory developed in earlier times, half a world away. (See:http://pathways4health.org/2010/03/01/chinese-5-phase-theory/)
The Five Flavors:2
Sweet…Sweet is the predominant flavor of foods—and the majority of our taste buds are primed to “sweet.” The preference for sweet appears to have been nature’s way in early times to assist survival, since plant foods in the wild that taste sweet are generally not poisonous. Most sweet foods —like grains, beans, autumn vegetables, nuts and seeds—are also strengthening and are thought by many to be the mainstay of a health-supportive diet. The other four flavors—bitter, pungent, sour, and salty—play important, but complementary roles to sweet-fortifying foods. Their subtle actions, when consumed modestly, help to harmonize and balance the strengthening nature of sweet foods. Most sweet foods build and fortify. Fruits, the exception, are more cleansing than they are strengthening. A food that is sweet…
- Works in the body with rising, outward energy
- Harmonizes, relaxes, strengthens; Promotes digestion and assimilation
- Soothes the pancreas/stomach, and liver
- Examples: grains, round and root vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds (strengthening); Fruits (cleansing)
- Contracts and gathers energy
- Aids the digestion of heavy fats and proteins
- Benefits the liver and lungs
- Examples: quinoa, aduki beans, apricot, berries, citrus, pineapple, plum, fermented foods
- Acts with downward, inward energy
- Dries dampness, mucus, fats
- Benefits the liver, pancreas, heart and arteries
- Examples: amaranth, rye, celery, chicory, watercress, scallion, basil, fenugreek, thyme, vinegar
- Energizes, stimulates, elevates energy
- Moves acute/onset ills “up and out” (e.g., cayenne pepper tea at the early stage of a cold)
- Benefits the lungs and upper respiratory
- Examples: broccoli, cabbage, leek, onion, parsnip, radish, scallion, turnip, watercress, most herbs and spices (especially cayenne pepper, ginger, garlic)
- Moves with downward, inward, contractive energy
- Calms, centers, improves mental focus and digestion
- Benefits the kidneys and pancreas/stomach
- Examples: barley, millet, parsley, sea vegetables, most fish, salty/fermented foods such as miso and soy sauce, salt
Shape The shape of a food and where and how it grows tells us much about its character. Root vegetables, for example, must forge deep into the ground and with tenacity to fend off creatures of the subterranean world. Root vegetables grow boldly yet patiently; they have less water content and offer more enduring energy and lasting power than a fast-growing, “flabby”/water-laden and more-perishable summer squash or melon that passively matures upon the flat, open ground.
Long roots like carrots and parsnips that are linear and grow downward have a “downward, inward” energy that is contractive compared to more expansive round roots like beets, onions, turnips, and rutabaga, which grow “downward and outward.” Linear root vegetables have their fresh-air counterparts in the form of “upward, inward” energy foods such as asparagus, kale, and chicory. Meanwhile, Swiss chard, escarole, and leaf lettuces, with their “upward, outward” energy have the same expansive character as round roots of the underground world, but their energy is directed more toward the upper rather than the lower part of the body.3
General Appearance As noted above, the appearance and function of a food tells much about its actions in the body. For example, kale and other leafy greens grow upward with an intricate, visible circulatory infrastructure. Leafy greens perform a respiratory function, taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. They are considered good for the lungs and heart, the circulatory systems for air and blood in the body. In a similar fashion, root vegetables that absorb and assimilate nutrients from the soil share an affinity with the digestive system, which performs this same function in the body. Delving deep into the ground to secure the entire plant, root vegetables also impart a grounding-centering energy to those who eat them.
Sometimes foods also look like the organ systems that they especially benefit: Walnuts, for example, are thought of as “brain food” and their omega-3 content lends credibility to this idea. Kidney beans, a member of the Water element in Chinese 5-Phase theory, can be used to help strengthen the kidneys. Mineral-rich bone stocks help to strengthen bones.
Color can also have meaning. Dark green and deep-blue foods are generally cooling; yellow-orange foods soothe the digestion; many white vegetables perform a cleansing function in the body; and red foods such as beets, red muscle meats, and marrow bones and are used as blood tonics http://pathways4health.org/2010/02/14/foods-to-tonify-organ-systems/.
Today, while herbal medicine and the wisdom of these models appear to be overshadowed by the modern miracles of Western medicine, we can still benefit by what foods tell us through their signatures. May this simple guide to food signatures enable you shop, cook, taste and enjoy foods in perhaps new and perhaps fascinating ways.
Copyright 2010 Pathways4Health.org
- See Matthew Wood’s Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy, and Flower Essences for further discussion. [↩]
- For further reading, see John W. Gravy, The Five Phases of Food; Daverick Leggett, Helping Ourselves—A Guide to Chinese Food Energetics and Recipes for Self-Healing; Annemarie Colbin, The Natural Gourmet; and Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods. [↩]
- For a fascinating 500+ page journey into the energetics of foods across the complete spectrum of nutrition, I highly recommend Steve Gagne’s The Energetics of Food, a wonderful resource of research and wisdom. [↩]