We westerners are not a bitter food eating culture and we’re missing out in a big way. We’ve spent decades breeding out all the less desirable characteristics, like bitterness, in many of our foods, foods that were once wild and significantly more nutrient dense. Somewhere in time, our eating habits changed and our current food system at-large has further fueled this change with rampant production of foods high in sugar and sodium. We’ve, unfortunately, de-bittered our entire food system on a large scale. But the bitter is coming back!
Bitter foods have a long historical use as food and medicine. They’ve long been touted as digestive magic and as of recent they’ve been making a huge comeback in mainstream cocktail culture, surprisingly. We’ve all seen the small bottle of Angostura Bitters, covered in that oversized paper label, from which bartenders shake a dash or two into our cocktails. Angostura bitters have been around since 1824 and began as a medicinal tincture to help with stomach ailments. And there is a whole slew of bitter-making companies that have sprung up since then, but the magic of bitters isn’t anything new.
Many common vegetables like broccoli, kale, Romaine lettuce, and arugula, as well as some less common vegetables like dandelion greens and burdock root, also have bitter qualities that act just the same. If these are foods you don’t enjoy, it’s highly likely because you find them to be slightly bitter, but there is more than one way to cook broccoli. Maybe these 5 reasons we all need to eat more bitter foods will encourage you to find ways to enjoy them.
Bitter foods stimulate and aid digestion, helping us to absorb more nutrients from the foods we eat. As soon as our taste buds detect bitter foods, a chain reaction of physiological processes begin that stimulate our liver to produce bile and our pancreas to release digestive enzymes. Together, along with adequate stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile are essential in breaking down food into parts that our body can actually use. Bile, for instance, is incredibly important in the digestion of fats and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.
Additionally, also being high in fiber, bitter vegetables help to maintain the health of our gut micro-biome. They contain prebiotics that feed the probiotics that live inside our gut, help us absorb nutrients, and play an important role in our overall health and immune system. All this help with digestion is crucial in helping to prevent or lessen symptoms of indigestion, heart burn, bloating, stomach pain, and more that can occur after eating.
Bitter foods are incredibly high in nutrients and antioxidants. Bitter vegetables like kale, spinach, and broccoli are packed with vitamins A, C, and K, as well as minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Studied have shown that just one serving of kale provides 100 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A and 40 percent of the RDI of vitamin C. And the compounds that make certain foods taste bitter actually have excellent antioxidant properties as well. Antioxidants are substances that may help to protect you against heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases as well.
Bitter foods support our body’s natural detoxification pathways. Our liver and kidneys are two of our main organs of detoxification. They help regulate certain metabolic processes and to remove metabolic wastes from our body. When our liver and kidneys are not functioning optimally, metabolic waste processing can slow down, increasing our internal toxic load and making us more susceptible to inflammation and illness. We need these organs to be doing their best work at all times for us and eating bitter foods helps. The sulfur-based compounds in bitter foods help to stimulate the liver and support its natural detoxification pathways.
Eating more bitter foods can actually makes those vegetables you don’t like taste better! When we think about digestion, we normally think of it as a process that takes place in the stomach, but actually digestion begins in the mouth. Our saliva is a whole lot more than just spit. It’s an incredibly complex fluid that contains over 1,000 different proteins that scientists are still trying to decipher. The complicated (and ingenious!) web of relationships and roles that salvia plays in the human digestive system is still largely a mystery, but what we do know is that overtime, the foods we eat alter the makeup of proteins found in our saliva. In turn, these proteins change how we taste food.
In other words, you can literally train your taste buds to actually enjoy certain foods you might find unpalatable due to their bitterness by eating more of them. And in training your taste buds, you can actually cultivate a taste for healthier foods.
Bitter foods can help to curb appetite. Studies have shown that bitter foods stimulate the release of hormones known to specifically help control appetite and reduce food intake. This, coupled with their lovely fiber content, may help us to feel fuller and satiated longer. In fact, some studies have found that consuming bitter foods before a meal may help to reduce calorie intake by 20-30 percent. There’s still a lot of mystery as to why, but there’s some thought that it’s because the taste of bitter ignites our ancestral memory. For many of our ancestors, bitter largely signified poison. Our bodies physiological processes that serve to reduce our food intake when we taste bitter may just be an ancient act of self-defense.
Bitter Foods to Incorporate into Your Every Day
There are many easily available foods you can choose to include more bitter into your diet. My advice: start small, season well, add healthy fats. (Roasted broccoli drizzled in olive oil and dusted with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper…mmmmmm.) Some beneficial bitter-full vegetables include:
- Belgian endive
- dandelion greens
- broccoli rabe
- turnip greens
- burdock root
- dark chocolate (forever and always…)
As I mentioned above, cooking these with healthy fats helps to tone down the shock of the bitter, as does salt. I find a squeeze of lemon juice to be divine as well! Later this week, I’ll share a simple recipe for wilted dandelion greens salad, a delicious way to eat those bitter dandelion greens and reap the sweet reward of bitter.
- University at Buffalo. (2019, July 24). With bitter foods, what you eat determines what you like to eat: Taste of bitter foods changes as repeated consumption alters the constellation of salivary proteins. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190724111114.htm
- Alejandro Becerra-Moreno, Pedro A. Alanís-Garza, José Luis Mora-Nieves, Juan Pablo Mora-Mora & Daniel A. Jacobo-Velázquez. (2014). Kale: An excellent source of vitamin C, pro-vitamin A, lutein and glucosinolates, CyTA – Journal of Food, 12:3, 298-303, DOI: 10.1080/19476337.2013.850743
- Mennella I, et. al. (2016). Microencapsulated bitter compounds (from Gentiana lutea) reduce daily energy intakes in humans. Br J Nutr, 10:1-10.