Foods with bitter flavors have played an important role in nutritional medicine and naturopathy for centuries. Saint Hildegard of Bingen regularly employed bitter tasting foods and bitters within the framework of her monastic medicine, particularly via herbal tinctures.
The Profile of Bitter Flavors
Today we know that humans possess five primary taste receptors: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and “umami” (savory). Our perception of taste contributes to important biological functions for us. On the one hand, taste controls our food selection process and governs nutritional behavior. On the other hand, the foods we choose can have significant and lasting effects on our metabolism.
Where does bitter taste fit in?
Bitter flavors occupy a special place among our various tastes. We are born with a natural aversion to bitter tasting foods, in part, to protect against poisonous plants. Yet even in light of this natural trigger we cannot draw the simple conclusion that every plant with a bitter taste is toxic.
Many well-known foods with bitter flavors are known to be harmless. Many even possess unique attributes that can be beneficial to our health. For example, our daily habit of coffee and its active ingredient, the stimulant caffeine, is derived from a bitter tasting plant that would be off-putting if consumed prior to processing.
Similarly, we readily consume a bitter alkaloid, theobromine, that is found in cocoa, chocolate, and matte tea. You may also look to the hops found in most beers, which possess a relaxing and sedating effect – in addition to its natural benefit as an anti-microbial.
Bitters for Healing
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the bitter taste represents one of the 5 elements, which in varying proportions, composes every micro-and macrocosm. The same rationale holds for the five-element doctrine found in Ayurvedic teachings, where bitter belongs to the elements of air and ether.
Elements and bitter flavors corresponding with sweet
Both of these systems share an understanding with Hildegard’s medicine and teachings. Universally, the taste of bitter appears present within the primary elements. For Hildegard, bitter flavor represents a fire element, which works in opposition to earth elements.
The sweet flavor serves as a primary example of the earth element in food. To preserve Hildegard’s ideal of balance, and promote the principle of Hildegard’s food medicine, meals should contain all flavor profiles in order to nourish the body completely, and to prevent cravings (specifically, sugar cravings).
The Risk of Being Bitter
Although bitter flavors once served a primary role in every healthy diet, today we seem to have all but banished it from our modern foods. Historically, bitter tasting vegetables, such as carrots, chicory, radish, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, were considerably more bitter than the same foods we consume today.
Bitter flavors do not appeal to everyone. In an effort to broaden the commercial appeal of vegetables, the agro-industry largely bred-out the natural bitter taste in the plants we eat in favor of more mild and sweet flavors. Vegetables with naturally bitter flavor profiles were altered for mass appeal. In doing so, the natural benefits of bitter flavors have been lost.
Bitter Flavors for Weight loss and Appetite Management
Bitter flavors act as natural appetite inhibitors, like discretio in Hildegard’s nutritional treatment. On the other hand, the sweet flavors we crave, promote gluttony and excess consumption. Despite their negative health implications, sweet foods have broader market appeal. As a result, industrialized countries are more likely than developing countries to produce sugar-laden foods, resulting in staggering levels of obesity and diabetes.
Unfortunately, as global commerce becomes the norm, so does industrialized food, and developing countries are quickly falling into this unfortunate trend.
Adopting a bitter diet
Incorporating bitter flavors into your diet can be a small, but significant, counterbalance to the creeping industrialization of our food supply. As in most dietary practices, getting started is the hardest part.
When you begin reintroducing bitter flavors to your diet, remember that your taste buds have grown accustomed to much more bland flavors. You are more likely to favor the dominant presence of sugars and salts and thus find many new foods overly bitter tasting.
The good news is that you can change your taste preferences over time. Start your exposure to bitter flavors using small doses. Just as you have built your appetite for sweet, sour, salty, and umami flavors, you can get used to bitter tastes, knowing they satisfy a natural craving that has been artificially suppressed.
Our Body Needs Bitter Flavors for Good Health
Bitter flavors stimulate the natural secretion of digestive enzymes in the upper abdomen. Bitter tastes and flavors also contribute to natural weight loss through purification and improvement in colonic inertia, a health condition peculiar to our modern lives.
Regular exposure to bitter foods in our diet helps promote healthy regeneration of intestinal flora by improving the intestinal environment and disrupting pathogenic germs. These intestinal changes improve the efficiency of our liver, pancreas, and small intestines.
Bitters can also help bring our digestion back to normal, improving the elimination of metabolic residues, and relieving sensitive digestive tract tissues that can become inflamed by the typical modern western diet.
Bitter flavors for digestion
Bitter flavors stimulate production of the body’s self-regulating digestive fluids. Bitters promote healthy and complete digestion. Bitter foods and flavors alone cannot overcome the harmful effects of diets based on processed foods. Including bitter foods and vegetables in combination with and otherwise healthy diet of whole foods yields optimal health effects.
Bitter tasting foods do more than improve digestive problems, they also detoxify and reduce acidity. When we consume bitter substances in higher quantities, we observe a long-term appetite reduction, particularly for sugars. In addition, bitters promote our metabolism to engage in the conversion of dietary fat into energy
People with liver and gall bladder issues find relief in a diet rich with bitter foods and flavors. They often overlook their body’s signals craving bitter foods, and their overall health improves when they answer the call for bitters.
The Best Known Bitter Herbs
• Angelica: Antibacterial, immune strengthening, improves stomach function
• Artichoke: Treats bloating, reduces elevated blood lipid levels, and stimulates liver and bile
• Cinquefoil: Treats anemia, and inflammation in the mouth and throat
• Gentian Root: This “King of Bitter Herbs” addresses liver/gall disorders, regulates the disturbed secretion of the gastric juices, in case of nausea and digestive issues
• Ginger or Galanga: Treats nausea, motion sickness, and immune strengthening
• Milk Thistle: Intensive effect on liver cells and antitoxic efficacy
• Cinnamon Bark: Antibacterial effect, prevents fungal attack, treats gastrointestinal complaints
• Dandelion: The classic vegetable for Spring Cure to detoxify and stimulate liver and gall bladder
Bitter Substances in Everyday Life
Ideally, we integrate bitter vegetables, herbs, and spices into our diets through natural means. The best sources are wild plants and herbs, but bitters are also found in abundance in the skins of most fruits and vegetables. This is part of why a diet that includes a wide variety of whole fruits and vegetables is so important.
Try reintroducing bitter flavors to your meals, particularly in vegetable and salad dishes. This is an easy step to incorporate new flavors into you daily regimen. Generally, organically grown and heirloom varieties will offer a greater probability of containing naturally occurring bitter flavors than conventional and modified fruits and vegetables.
Much like Hildegard herself, you can pick wild herbs outdoors, plant them in your Hildegarden, get them fresh from farmer’s markets, or buy prepared vegetable bitters from a trusted source.
Bitters as Finished Products
A high quality herbal bitter usually contains many varieties of bitter herbs.
Bitter substances reveal their full potential when taken before meals – at least once a day. Taking bitters before each meal helps to support a consistent digestive process.
Immediately after starting treatment with bitters, some people observe a significantly increased vitality and noticeable clarity. In other people, a bitters regimen may have the effect of a Hildegard fast. The effects can be regulated with varying dosage of bitters.
Depending on the initial state and health of the individual, desired results normally present within a few weeks or months. You’ll notice that after just a few days, you will miss the unusual taste of bitters if you forget your daily dose of herbal bitter!