Empty Sweet

In first year Oriental medicine school, I remember the Chinese teacher explaining the ‘flavors’ or ‘tastes’ associated with the organs. Each of the yin organs (heart, lung, kidney, liver and spleen) benefits from a specific taste of food or herbs.  The corresponding tastes are bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet.  I remember quite vividly the class response when she told us that the spleen benefitted from sweet. Deep, approving murmurs of satisfaction moved palpably through the group, accompanied by a slightly self-righteous and smug embrace of desire’s affirmation.

(Note: As you’ll learn from reading Dao of Chinese Medicine, poor translations of ancient Chinese texts are responsible for unfortunate misunderstandings of basic Oriental principles in the Western world. The name ‘spleen’, a linguistic blunder by foreigners, not the Chinese, is one of these. The Chinese organ system taught as ‘spleen’ in the West would be more accurately translated as ‘pancreas/small intestine’.)

Americans may be no more addicted than other cultures, but we do tend to glorify our addictions. Sugar, being legal, cheap, and socially acceptable, is at the top of our list. The decades before my study of Oriental medicine provided me ample evidence of the truth that, after attention and attitude, food is the most continual influence we exert on our health. Sixteen years of practice after graduating, however, I am still left shaking my head at American denial of such an elemental reality.

On that day in the classroom, the Oriental medicine doctor (OMD) teaching these principles also gave us a comprehensive qualification of the spleen’s preference for the sweet taste. squashA clear distinction is made between ‘full sweet’ and ’empty sweet’. Full sweet is what the spleen thrives on, not empty sweet. And what is full sweet? Grains. Whole grains. Vegetables, preferably in a variety of vivid colors. Whole, fresh fruits — not fruit juices. Fresh seafood and meats. These are full sweet. Eaten in a balanced and moderate way, they tonify and nourish our bodies like nothing else can.

Yet denial and addiction won in the classroom that day, because, even though this important qualification was discoursed beyond any misunderstanding or doubt, most of the students did not hear it. It was simply too incongruous to their personal tendencies and addictions to be recognized as truth. And to this day, the way they manage their clients, the way they comprehend and practice Oriental medicine, and certainly the way they feed themselves does not hint that they were ever exposed to these truths. Empty sweet is their god, as it is for most Americans: refined sugars, fruit juices, refined grains, processed foods. It produces dampness and stagnation. Doesn’t sound all that bad?  How about metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and death? These are some manifestations of dampness and stagnation.

What is truly astounding to me is that empty sweet doesn’t even taste good to someone eating a balanced, nutrient-rich menu of real food. And yet, the whole world is addicted to it. ‘Big Food’, the diabolical cohort of ‘Big Pharma’, knows this and is happy to accommodate your addiction. Empty sweet is everywhere. It’s in everything you order in a restaurant, everything you buy in a box, can, bottle or a bag. It’s even in your salt! It doesn’t require much effort to disguise this junk when your buyer is a junkie.

Like most addictions, this one kills. On a number of levels. So it should come as no surprise that Big Food and Big Pharma are such inseparable catalysts to what government endorses and subsidizes. Unfathomable fortunes are made and perpetuated by the clever interplay of their objectives. The health of our nation is already seriously compromised, and the ability of our ‘health care system’ to survive the next forty years as this crisis unfolds is questionable at best. But there’s money to be made, right?

Sorry. I didn’t intend to go off on a political diatribe. I simply want to bring to you the concept of full sweet and empty sweet. It’s missing in our culture, and, as I hope you can see, has immense implications to our health, not to mention our future as a civilization. Are we ready for some conceptual leaps? Can we handle the altitude of standing on the next rung on the evolutionary ladder? If not, maybe we’ll have the experience of falling off the ladder. At this moment, the balance point is pretty dicey.

Check out a couple of classics on the energetics of food in “Recommended Reading”.