A couple weeks ago in Vegas during Leader’s Conference, I sat in on a discussion with some of the best herbalists in the world. One topic that they brought up was the importance of the taste of bitterness in some foods and herbs.
The “bitterness” on our taste buds alone is a nutrient, in a sense. The bitterness sends a chemical reaction throughout out bodies and has numerous health benefits. When you sweeten bitter foods, you often destroy the majority of the health benefit of that particular food.
Many nutritionists, herbalists, and other health experts believe that far too many modern industrialized humans are deficient in bitter substances, which in part contributes to our epic rise in digestive related illnesses, inflammatory conditions, immune challenges, diabetes, and more.
In a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, “One study found that only 5% to 8% of the calories we eat are bitter. But the compounds that make foods taste bitter (carotenoids in sweet potatoes and spinach, flavonoids in cranberries and kale, polyphenols in wine) also make them good for us.
Consider the initial taste shock of bitter foods such as cranberries, cocoa and kale to be positive, rather than negative. Bitter = healthful.
Here are a few of the health benefits of bitter foods.
1. Helps to absorb nutrients
While bitterness is often perceived as unpleasant, the interaction between bitter constituents in foods and our bitter taste receptors stimulate the production of gastric acid in the stomach. This helps prime the stomach for the food it is about to encounter.
“Bitter foods and herbs help to stimulate digestive juices and support food digestion,”
says professional dietitian Nicole Dube of Halifax, N.S.
“Bitter foods help stimulate our taste receptors on the tongue, which subsequently stimulates enzyme production and bile flow.
The better your food is digested, the more nutrients you will absorb from your food. It doesn’t matter what you eat, if you can’t absorb it, it won’t be of much benefit to you.” Dube often recommends eating a dandelion salad for people with digestive problems.
2. Balances taste buds and controls that sweet tooth
The more bitter greens we eat, the more bitter greens we want.
“We all have different sensory levels. It depends on genetics, what you’ve trained your body to like, what your mother ate when you were in utero or what your heritage is,” says Theresa Albert, a Toronto-based registered nutritionist and founder of the website, My Friend in Food.
In Ayurvedic tradition, bitter foods are thought to reduce food cravings and aid in weight loss. In TCM, bitter foods are prized for ‘removing heat’ in the body – could that speak to their very modern ‘anti-inflammatory’ benefits?
3. Cleanses the body
Bitter roots and veggies contain fiber to help sweep wastes through the digestive tract. Bitter foods also contain sulfur-based compounds which support the natural detoxification pathways in the liver; helping it to do what it is meant to do – keep your body clean and clear.
“We’re just starting to discover the benefits of greens,” says Albert, who explains that centuries ago, in ancient Chinese and Hindu diets, culinary traditions regularly included bitter foods.
4. Stimulates metabolism
Bitter foods and herbs like green tea have been shown to boost metabolism. Drinking green tea is one of the easiest ways to rev up your metabolism. A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that green tea-extract increases the metabolism by 4% over a 24-hour period.
Green tea has also been shown to inhibit fat absorption—the movement of glucose into fat cells, [support healthy] glucose levels after eating a meal, prevent insulin spikes which prevents fat storage, and reduce appetite. People that choose sweet foods over bitter foods are also at risk for metabolic syndrome.
5. Fights free radicals and stimulates immune function
Recent studies have shown that bitter foods, including dark chocolate, can help fight free radicals in the body. Of course, Bitter foods are usually nutrient dense Bitter foods pack plenty of nutrition into each bite.
For instance, beta-carotene for healthy skin; folate for a healthy nervous system; vitamin K for healthy blood clotting and phyto-chemicals for healthy inflammation response, managing cholesterol, balance hormones, detoxify the blood and metabolizes fats. Many greens are also mineral rich; gentle cooking will help make those minerals more bioavailable to the human body.
List of some bitter foods and herbs
There are a wide variety of bitter foods and herbs. Some of them are best taken as a tea to help your body register the bitter taste to get the digestive juices flowing. Some better foods and herbs include:
- Dark chocolate
- Milk thistle
- Bitter melon and gourd
- Japanese eggplant
- Fenugreek seeds
- Leafy greens
“One of the most neglected concepts in Western health and nutritional theory is that of balance. Chinese medicine, on the other hand, heavily emphasizes balance when it comes to diet and strives to maintain that over all else.
The human body is wired to maintain balance over all else. Imbalances, especially in diet, always cause over compensation in the opposite direction in order to maintain the yin/yang balance that keeps the body in homeostasis. That is why dietary changes are best implemented slowly, so that the body is not thrown into a state of shock and can adjust accordingly.
“In terms of dietary balance, most Westerners severely neglect the bitter flavor/taste element in favor of more appealing and ‘friendly’ choices like sweet or salty. However, this is inherently problematic as the bitter flavor is an essential component of maintaining balance and health.
Bitter foods and herbs have many important functions in the body, specifically in regards to the liver, detoxification and digestion – is it not a coincidence that these areas of health are some of the most problematic for Westerners?
In fact, ask any acupuncturist which disorder (read: imbalance) is most commonly seen in their practice and they will happily tell you it is liver qi stagnation, which is treated with bitter herbs and foods, among other things.
It’s understandable that people avoid bitter foods as they can be somewhat unpleasant, however, there are many time tested, delicious ways to integrate bitter foods into common recipes.
What’s more is that bitter foods usually make you feel great — especially those that directly affect the liver. A few seconds of a bitter taste is very little to go through in exchange for drastically improves health if you ask me…”
– Truth The Brilliance of Bitter By Marc David