The benefits of bitter tasting foods have been recognized since antiquity. The origin of herbal bitters can be traced back to ancient Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, bitter tonics and herbals infused with wine were a primary modality for common cures and preventative medicines. Despite the long history of positive uses and healing properties, somewhere along the line bitters acquired the negative connotation that remains to this day.
Eventually, bitterness became something to be avoided. Despite the fact that bitters were essential to the advent of the modern “cocktail”, the taste experience on its own gradually became more distant. Today, bitterness has effectively been banished from our diets, leaving us to wonder what foods are bitter, and what are their benefits?
Go Ahead, Be Bitter: The Benefits of Bitters and Bitter Tasting Foods
The value of bitterness was overrun by the irresistible sweetness of sugar. Even bittersweet has hardly held its ground when competing against the rush of pure sugar. The explanation makes sense insofar as bitterness traditionally signals a poison of some kind.
Our appreciation of sweetness, however, seems out of proportion with the small number of sweet receptors we possess. Whereas our tongues have over two dozen receptors for bitter tastes, we only have a couple for sweetness.
The modern western diet has evolved by favoring decadence over essence. The complex and balanced tastes present in nature have been replaced by the pleasurable tastes of sweetness and saltiness – flavors that are scarce in nature and rarely found paired on their own.
Our 5 Primary Taste Receptors
The unique receptors of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami (savory) have developed together for many reasons. As one of the five senses, taste is an essential interface between our bodies and the natural world. Just as the five senses provide essential cues about our surroundings, our five tastes provide information that cue important memories, warn of toxicity, indicate nutritional content, and prepare our bodies to receive optimal benefits from what we are consuming.
The shift from a diet diverse in flavor profiles found in nature, to one of densely layered tastes focused on pleasurable flavors that are scarce in nature, is one of the areas in which our modern lives have deviated from a harmonious bond with our natural world.
As a result, our digestive systems have become increasing acidic. The deficit of bitterness combined with an overload in sugar and salt leaves our bodies struggling to process foods and extract nutrients for optimal health.
Bitters for Digestion
The most immediate and noticeable attribute of bitter tasting foods and substances is that they stimulate digestive activity. The gastrointestinal system is primed to process food and gastric emptying is accelerated. Bitter tasting foods stimulate the secretion of bile and pancreatic juices. The result is improved digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Through its digestive properties bitters simultaneously reduce bloating and inhibit fermentation and putrefaction in the intestines. But they can do much more. By improving the absorption of vitamin B12 from the digestive tract, essential processes such as hematopoiesis (production of blood components) are enhanced.
The enhanced digestive process also promotes the absorption of valuable fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as iron.
Bitters for Gout and Acidity
Illnesses stemming from digestive imbalances and hyper-acidity such as gout and rheumatism can be mitigated or avoided altogether by incorporating more bitter substances in your diet.
The acidity (acidosis) problem is a common metabolic disorder that has become all too common as a result of the modern diet. It is responsible for many ailments including hair loss, skin disorders, fatigue, nervousness, immune deficiency, headaches, poor circulation, eczema, and allergies.
Bitters Eliminate Waste
Bitters counter the high acidity but also accelerate the excretion of excess acidity in the tissues of the body. For this reason, they are not only valuable as a regular dietary supplement but are also excellent for detoxification by promoting a gentle elimination of toxins, retention of fluids, and reduction of digestive obstructions.
The stabilizing effect of bitters on the digestive organs, including the stimulation of the intestinal lining to eliminate metabolic waste, produce a more efficient digestive environment resulting in higher nutritional utilization as well as removal of toxins, bacteria and other waste materials.
As a practitioner of the middle ages, Hildegard believed bitter tonics and naturally bitter plant materials were an integral part of a healthy diet. These ancient natural substances may just do more than awaken your digestive system. So go ahead, be bitter!