Traditional Herbal medicine as well as cooking traditions pay attention to the flavors of foods. It is the flavor that determines how a food or herb will affect how you feel. In Herbal medicine the tradition is to talk of the five flavors. These flavors; salty, pungent, bitter, sweet, and sour each have an effect on the body. The understanding of how these flavors make us feel forms the basis of herbal medicine.
The sour flavor helps the body to retain fluids. The sour flavor is predominant in herbal formulas that stop excess perspiration, stop bleeding, and stop diarrhea. Sour binds and retains fluids into the body. As a result sour is said to most affect the Liver and Spleen, which in Chinese Herbal medicine are understood to control the movement and retention of fluids and energy in the body.
In the classic ancient medical text the Neijing suwen it is said that "Overly excessive consumption of sour foods can make the skin rough, thick and wrinkled". It also suggests avoiding sour foods if there are injuries to the joints and tendons. Sour flavors make people pucker their lips and face. This could explain why we call people who are stuck on things and all pulled in tight in their facial features a "sour puss".
From a food point of view the sour flavor is most often used in foods that are compliments or condiments to a main course. Vinegar as an acid is one of the most prominent sour items. It finds it way into many items like sour kraut, pickles, cole slaw and some condiments like mustard that are generally not used as a main course.
In Asian cooking the sour flavor is often paired with sweet flavors. In this way the fluid generation and nourishment qualities of the sweet flavor are retained by the body longer. This mixing of sweet and sour, occurs naturally in many fruits such as; lemons, granny smith apples, cranberries, and many berries. These and many others all have a balance of sour and sweet together.
Chemically, the sour flavor is caused by acids. Our stomachs use acid to break down food and prepare it for absorption into the body. There are many folk remedies that utilize vinegar to improve digestion as a cure all. There is some value in this. Some people have a diet that is too alkaline or their body just does not create enough acid for proper digestion. Without a proper digestion, energy is impaired. By improving the digestion you can improve all the functions in the body. This does not help everyone, because some people have too much acid in their stomachs or they can't control it, as in the case of acid reflux disease. In these types of situations the adding of extra acid (sour) is unnecessary.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066