Sugar: Friend or Enemy?  According to Chinese Medicine

Dans Articles in English

By Philippe Sionneau

Translated by Janel Sharma

Based on the Book "Ces Aliments qui nous Soignent"

Sweet is one of fivsucse flavors essential to our state of balance. Though one must always take into account the issues of quality and quantity.

Currently, dentists, naturopaths, and nutritionists denounce the risks of excess sugar for one's health. But before it became an enemy, Chinese Medicine considered sugar to be a remedy with medicinal properties, one with advantages and risks. To understand this approach, it is necessary to examine sugar in terms of the fundamental theories of Chinese diet. When Chinese dietary theory was created about 2,500 years ago, the notions of vitamins, minerals, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates did not exist. The Chinese based their knowledge of food on different, more subtle notions. They studied foods according to characteristics such as Jing (the energy of the food), tropism (the principal place where the food grows), nature (the thermal effect that the food engenders in the body), and flavor (the therapeutic effect of the food).

The Five Principal Flavors of Foods

The five principal flavors in Chinese dietary theory are sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, and salty. Each flavor has a specific action in the body and generates certain metabolic effects. Although they are not taken into account by modern science, the effects are very real and they help to explain the medicinal properties of most foods. In addition, each flavor corresponds to an organ. However, Chinese medical theory also dictates that each of the five principal organs (liver, heart, spleen, lung, kidneys) also governs the nutrition of certain tissues, so one can say that the flavors affect the entire body. The sour flavor has a special effect on the liver, bitter on the heart, sweet on the spleen, acrid on the lung, and salty on the kidneys. A moderate quantity of a flavor balances and nourishes its associated organ. The lack of a flavor in the diet therefore results in the malnutrition of its corresponding organ, as well as the body tissues that depend on that organ. On the other hand, an excess of that same flavor will injure the organ, hinder its proper functioning, and cause various problems in the body. A balance of the flavors is therefore fundamental to the balance of the body. This is why it is essential to eat a variety of foods, and to avoid a diet that revolves around the same flavors.

The Difference between the Flavor and the Taste of a Food

Each food can have one or more flavors, but they are not always the ones that we sense when we taste it. For example, even if a food doesn't taste sour, it can still be described as having a sour flavor. This signifies that it acts particularly at the energetic level of the liver (the liver being associated with the sour flavor), or that it has an astringent action in the body (the action of the sour flavor). We see here that the flavor of a food describes its underlying characteristics and not it's taste.

We are going to expand upon the characteristics of the sweet flavor, which is the flavor associated with sugar, but we will first briefly review the action of the other four flavors:

The Sour Flavor

  • Retains and collects (prevents the abnormal leakage of energy or substances (sweat, sperm, fluids, stool, urine, blood, etc.). Sour foods are often used to help stop diarrhea, incessant sweating, leucorrhea, hemorrhaging, and incessant cough, especially when these issues are caused by a vacuity of the body).
  • Generates fluids (treats thirst, especially when combined with the sweet flavor).
  • Nourishes the liver and its connections (gallbladder, eyes, nails, tendons…).

The Bitter Flavor

  • Drains downward, descends excess energy, pathogenic factors, and heat.
  • Drains fire (a method for eliminating heat). Heat in Chinese medicine is often a physiological or pathological hyperactivity that can cause redness, inflammation of the eyes, mouth ulcers, cutaneous eruptions, constipation with dry stools, cystitis, thirst, dark scanty urine, insomnia, vexation, irritability, and the tendency to anger easily.
  • Dries dampness (cold or heat).
  • Nourishes the heart and its connections: small intestine, tongue, vessels, complexion…

The Acrid Flavor

  • Disperses and induces sweating (acts primarily on the energy of the lung, defensive energy, and the surface of the body).
  • Circulates (energy, blood, fluids… internal stagnations).
  • Moistens (including the kidneys, as a result of stimulating the source of fluids).
  • Nourishes the lungs and its connections: large intestine, nose, skin, hair…

The Salty Flavor

  • Softens hardness and breaks up accumulations. It softens abnormally hard masses, such as cysts, nodules, goiters, and lipomas. One example is the ability of certain algaes to help treat goiter.
  • Descends, purges downward. For example, salt water has an interesting action in the case of constipation, because it softens the stool and promotes evacuation by descending downward.
  • Nourishes the kidneys and their connections: bladder, ears, bones, hair…

Properties of the Sweet Flavor

The sugar that we are going to study below is characterized as having a sweet flavor (Gan). It nourishes, tonifies, and moistens. This flavor acts as a general fortifier. It promotes the production of energy, blood, and fluids. Most grains and legumes are sweet, which is why they make up the base of most traditional diets. Milk and many fruits are also sweet; they moisten the body and alleviate thirst.

The sweet flavor also relieves tension. In times of emotional stress, the foods that one has a tendency to crave are sugary foods. The sweet flavor also soothes spasms and relieves pain, like sugar cane does in the case of abdominal pain and menstrual cramps. It is necessary here to clarify the relationship between the "sweet flavor" and the "sweet taste". One can say that the sweet taste is an extremely concentrated sweet flavor. Sugar is characterized by a very intense sweet flavor.

In Review, the Sweet Flavor

  • Nourishes, supplements (Qi, blood, Yin, Yang)
  • Relaxes spasms and tension ("antispasmodic")
  • Harmonizes the effects of the other flavors
  • Nourishes the spleen and its connections: stomach, mouth, muscles, lips…

Sweetness and Pathologies

According to Chinese medicine, the spleen and stomach, two major organs of digestion, are associated with the sweet flavor. This is why consuming too many sweet foods (and of course very sweet things like sugar cane and beets) weakens digestive function, and the flesh becomes over-nourished. This phenomenon is observed in the case of people who are overweight or obese. An excess of sugar can also be the origin of intestinal problems, rhinitis, sinusitis, hypoglycemia, hypercholesterolemia, etc. In addition, the ancient Chinese medical texts say that it can cause negative effects on the bones, hair, muscles…

In review, the sweet flavor has advantages and disadvantages. Each food characterized by this flavor possesses a specific action on the body. In terms of cane sugar it is necessary to distinguish between unrefined and refined.

Unrefined Cane Sugar

Hong Tang


Flavor and Quality: Sweet, Warm

Associated Organs: Spleen, Stomach, Liver

Unrefined cane sugar, whose medicinal properties we will develop on below, is the true whole sugar. It is preferably non-crystalized, raw, and aromatic. It is not to be confused with "brown sugar" which is often just refined white sugar that has been colored by adding molasses. There are a number of different brands of brown sugar such as Turbinando, Sucanat, Rapadura, Bjorg Cane Sugar, and Muscovado.

Functions and Indications of Unrefined Cane Sugar
In our Current Language
In Chinese Medical Language
Harmonizes gynecological issues.

Lochiorrhagia, retention of lochia, pelvic pain after delivery, dysmenorrhea, irregular periods, menstrual clots, dark menstrual blood.

Invigorates blood, disperses stasis.

For blood stagnation.
Certain gynecological problems are caused by poor circulation of blood.

Anti-anemic. Reconstituting.

Anemia, fatigue, pale complexion and nails, oligomenorrhea, post-partum weakness.

Nourishes liver blood.

For liver blood vacuity.
Certain deficiencies are due to a deficit in the quality of blood.

Intestinal antispasmodic. Antiemetic.

Abdominal pain, vomiting, lack of appetite.

Supplements the spleen, warms the stomach, alleviates tensions (spasms). For a vacuity of spleen and stomach Qi or Yang.

Digestive issues due to a weak or impaired digestive system.

Other Medical Indications

For gynecological issues due to blood stasis, unrefined cane sugar is traditionally dissolved in a small amount of rice, barley, or sorghum alcohol (gin, whiskey, or vodka may also be used). This is then diluted with warm water before consuming.

For epigastric and abdominal pain, one traditionally makes a decoction of tangerine peel (Ju Pi) and fresh ginger, and then adds unrefined cane sugar.


Has the same contraindications as refined cane sugar (see below)

An excess of unrefined cane sugar decreases appetite and easily causes stomach heat or damp-heat. Consumption should therefore be moderated.


Refined White Cane Sugar

Bai Tang


Tastes and Nature: Sweet, Neutral

Associated Organs: Lung, Spleen, Stomach

Functions and Indications of Refined White Cane Sugar
In our Current Language
In Chinese Medical Language
Intestinal antispasmodic

Dull, spasmodic pain of the stomach and abdomen.


Supplements the middle, relieves spasms.

For spleen and stomach Qi vacuity.
Digestive problems due to a vacuity of the digestive system.



Thirst, dry throat.


Nourishes stomach Yin and generates fluids.

For stomach Yin vacuity.
In the case of a vacuity of the substance (Yin) of the stomach, a subtle form of heat appears which dries fluids and causes symptoms of dryness.


Antitussive. Moistening.

Dry cough without phlegm.


Moistens the lung.

For lung dryness.
Frequent, chronic, non-infectious cough due to lack of moisture in the lung.



According to Chinese dietary theory, unrefined or refined cane sugar should be consumed moderately, or even avoided in the following cases: multiple dental cavities, obesity, diabetes, excess triglycerides, high cholesterol, damp-heat, damp-phlegm, chronic indigestion, distension, abdominal fullness, vomiting.

The "Middle Path"

Very often in Chinese culture, people and phenomena are looked at in relation to a state of balance. This state of balance is also called the "middle path." Excess consumption of cane sugar can therefore cause numerous problems. At the same time, it has beneficial effects in nutritional and therapeutic programs. Therefore, with appropriate use, sugar can be an ally instead of an enemy.


1. "Ces aliments qui nous soignent - la diététique chinoise au service de votre santé", Philippe Sionneau et Josette Chapellet, Editions Guy Trédaniel.

2. "La diététique du Tao", Philippe Sionneau et Richard Zagorsky, Editions Guy Trédaniel.