A stroll through the produce section of your local grocery store is one of abundance. This bounty provided via mass-produced industrial farming is great for selection and availability, but we have paid for it in terms of a decline in naturally vibrant flavors. Our namesake, Hildegard of Bingen would worry about “discretio” in our nutrition.
The convenience of stocked shelves and year-round availability comes with trade-offs. While we are accustomed to seeing these fine looking vegetables on our dinner plates and in our salad bowls, most vegetables served today have had the bitter flavors bred out of them.
What Foods are Bitter?
Today, we’re used to eating mild tasting foods. As a result, vegetables with the most favorable market appeal are mild-flavored varieties. Thus agricultural supply meets demand, which creates the next generation of people accustomed to these mild flavors, and so on.
The trend toward avoiding bitter tasting foods in favor of mild, savory and sweet flavors has wider implications. Many of us suffer from digestive weakness, heartburn, bloating, and metabolic conditions. And many more are finding the blessing of this abundance of food to be a curse in the form of over-eating or other eating imbalances.
Setting the Stage of Flavor
The role of bitter flavors – as well as the corresponding nutritive and digestive — are just starting to be understood for their importance across different functions within our bodies.
It used to be different. Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts or carrots possessed aromatic, bitter and powerful flavors. They were full of bitter substances to help stimulate digestion. Anyone who has a garden knows the difference between the heirloom varieties they plant and those they can get off the shelves at the market. Despite this trend in mild foods, many modern sources of bitter flavors remain.
Natural sources of bitter flavor
- Vegetables: radicchio, chicory, arugula, endive, cauliflower, artichokes, broccoli
- Fruits: Citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes
- Cereals: Amaranth, Millet
- Spices: ginger, pepper, cardamom
- Culinary herbs: thyme, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, sorrel, sage
In addition to the culinary herbs listed above, there are a number of medicinal herbs, which may be used in combination or in isolation to create traditional teas addressing certain health issues.
Remedies tied to bitter flavor
- Mugwort: Indigestion
- Blessed Thistle: heartburn, gall bladder problems and bloating
- Buckbean: against gall ailments and stomach cramps
- Ginger / Galanga: against loss of appetite and stomach cramps
- Gentian: for indigestion, resulting from a lack of gastric juice, but also in flatulence and bloating. Yellow gentian, incidentally the highest Bitter content that exists in nature.
- Hop cones: in bladder and kidney problems, and sleep disorders
- Milk thistle: to strengthen the liver and against irritable stomach
- Centaury: liver ailments
- Sage: at menopause induced sweating, sore throat, and cough
Bitters – the forgotten slimming products
As early as Hildegard of Bingen and later with Paracelsus, bitter elixirs had been recorded and recommended as staples for healthy living and nutritional treatment. In those days, the primary constituents of elixirs were bitter flavored herbs such as angelica root, yellow gentian, ginger, and milk thistle. The phrase “a bitter pill” refers to the health benefits of bitter substances as original medicine.
Digestive system will thank you
Bitters and bitter tasting foods have immense health benefits, particularly relating to our digestive systems. Bitters are also very easy to administer. All it takes is a small amount to satisfy some basic health needs. Some of the health benefits of bitters include:
- They serve as an effective appetite suppressant because they satisfy an absent flavor profile.
- The aromatic flavor accelerates the onset of digestive activity, so your stomach starts working to prepare for digestion.
- The advance motor activity of the stomach and small intestines functionally improves digestion.
Bitters as an appetite suppressant
Most people today don’t eat a lot of bitter tasting foods. Biologically, our bitter flavor sensors trigger suspicion about the integrity of our food. However, to forego bitter flavors altogether means giving up a lot more than a unique taste.
Those of us who fail to satisfy our bitter flavor profile also compromise a natural governor of eating behavior. Specifically, bitter substances serve as a “counterweight” to the sweet, mild dishes that we crave (at the expense of our waistline).
Bitter substances reduce our appetite for sweets and curb a vicious cycle. Namely, sweet flavors prompt the body to distribute more insulin and whet the appetite for more sweets.
Bitters work on the gut
Our body’s digestive tract and intestines are made up of sensitive mucous membranes, which contain 80% of our entire body’s immune cells.
If the digestive system is overloaded and our intestinal flora fall out of balance, threatening ailments can arise, such as inflammatory bowels, diarrhea and irritable bowels; or, even more serious intestinal conditions that seem to be happening with greater frequency in modern society.
Bitters give your digestive tract a work-out
Bitter herbs and vegetables act as natural fat burners. Bitters stimulate the entire digestive system, giving our intestines a healthy work-out.
Gastrointestinal movements increase and gastric emptying accelerates, stimulating the secretion of bile and pancreatic juice, and improving the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
The intrinsic factor of digestion
Bitters help stimulate the release of stomach acid, which in turn triggers the release of intrinsic factor, an essential glycoprotein produced by our digestive system. Intrinsic factor helps your body to absorb and make use of vitamin B12, and thereby avoid vitamin B-12 deficiency anemia or, pernicious anemia. Bitters also promote the absorption of valuable fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as iron.
Bitter and hyperacidity
Too much acidity in our bodily fluids (metabolic acidosis) is a common metabolic disorder, and a reflection of modern living. Metabolic acidosis manifests in several physical ailments including rheumatism, gout, fatigue, nervousness, weakened immune system, poor circulation, eczema and allergies.
Achieving greater Ph balance with bitters and bitter tasting foods
Bitters help ensure any excess acid contained in our body tissue breaks down and gets excreted. The fact that bitter herbs are alkaline makes them even more valuable.
Bitters help restore our body’s homeostatic acid-alkaline balance. In addition, bitters stimulate the body to produce more of its own digestive juices, to help to achieve a healthy and complete digestion.
Bitters as a detoxifying agent
Bitters promote a gentle way to cleanse our bodies of toxins, waste products and other obstructions. If you’re involved in one of Hildegard’s three healthy fasts lasting days or weeks, bitter substances help to cleanse and regenerate your digestive organs.
A healthy digestive system is paramount
In a healthy digestive environment, toxins, metabolic waste, viruses, bacteria and fungi are easily removed and excreted. Only a healthy digestive system effectively absorbs nutrients and vital substances.
Intestinal health is central to our overall well-being, so next time you reach for those mild vegetables out of habit, take a bit of time to consider some of the bitter substances that may help replace what has been lost to convenience. Your body will thank you.