Bitters for Health: The Lost Taste

Bitter Benefits

Of our five flavor profiles, what makes bitter so unique and beneficial for health? Why should we pay more attention to the bitter taste and invest some time in reacquainting our pallets? 

Unlike salt and sweet, bitter flavors derive from countless different bitter substances. These bitter substances differ in their chemical composition, while contributing to a consistent bitter taste. For example, artichokes contain the bitter substance cynarin, while grapefruits derive their bitter flavor from glycoside, and nettles and dandelions draw a bitter taste from terpene and polyphenols.

The Health Effects of Bitter Substances

The effects of different bitter substances vary according to their properties. Different bitter substances may possess varying detoxifying, antioxidant, lipid-lowering, anti-inflammatory or antibacterial effects. Ultimately, as one of the five flavors we perceive, bitters remain essential components of a healthy and balanced diet.

At the highest levels, bitter promotes well-being, vitality, and health. 

Bitters as Medicine
Grapefruit, a healthy bitter food

The regular consumption of bitter substances supports the production of digestive juices, promotes intestinal activity, and broadly supports the digestive system in the digestion of fat. 

Bitter for Health

Practitioners of Hildegard Medicine emphasize the importance of preserving healthy digestion for general well-being. After all, a significant cohort of human immune cells exist within our intestines, forming a strong relationship between our brains and our guts.  Modern science concludes that the second brain in our guts influence our thoughts and feelings, directly.

A strong immune system requires healthy and intact intestinal flora as a basis for protection. Bitter substances taken before meals help regulate appetite and activate digestion. Perhaps even more relevant in this age of sugar, bitter flavors help manage our craving for sweets and support weight loss.

How do I Taste Bitter?

Measuring taste and flavor depends on several different factors. For one thing, flavor depends on the actual chemical composition of the food or substance.  Additionally, individual taste perception varies from person to person. Depending on the number of bitter receptors on an individual’s tongue, people react differently to bitter flavors. 

Two people may perceive the same bitter properties in completely differently.  Age may also play a role, with a decreasing sense of taste often accompanying increasing age. However, since our bitter taste receptors reside at the back of the tongue, on the soft palate, nasopharynx, larynx and esophagus, bitter taste perception deteriorates slowly. 

Eating habits also play an important role in how we perceive flavors. Ironically, when our diets fall out of balance, we often crave the very things that harm, propelling us further out of balance.  This phenomenon applies to sugar and may result in the common avoidance of bitter flavors.

Why Do You Prefer Sweet or Salty?

But why does bitterness commonly cause displeasure, while the taste of chocolate or chips seems universally delicious? 

Health benefits of bitter tasting foods
Sweet and salty are preferred

Bitter substances initially trigger a warning signal. In nature, a bitter taste points to immature, spoiled or even poisonous foods. By contrast, our favorite foods typically appear in nature as sweet or savory flavor profiles. From a biological perspective, flavors like, sweet, salty, and unami point to vital properties in food. 

For example, serves as a mineral to maintain critical body functions. Unami points to animal or vegetable protein sources.  And, the sweet flavor profile signals vital carbohydrates. Our earliest memories from infancy involve sweet and unami flavors.  Our mother’s breast milk conditioned an appreciation for its essential properties, sugar and protein.

Enter Modern Food Industry

It is not surprising that we instinctively favor sweet, salty and unami flavors. It may be somewhat surprising to consider the extent to which we favor those flavors, until we consider the power of our modern food industry.  

Today, the production of virtually all food products involves artificial enrichment with flavor enhancers, like sugar, salt, sodium glutamate, and yeast. As a result, we actively increase our dependence and tolerance for excessive flavors.  

Bitter flavor and health
Modern Diet has lost its bitter flavor

Back to Hildegard’s advice for moderation, these high doses lead us further out of balance.

Where All the Bitters At?

The five flavor profiles include sweet, salty, unami, sour, and bitter.  Our modern diets depend heavily on the first three flavors, sweet, salty, and unami.  While, sour flavors remain present, but declining in most western cuisine, the bitter flavor profile appears all but forgotten. Bitter simply appears unappealing to a western pallet and fails to capture broad acceptance among consumers.

Through industrial modifications to natural foods, our agri-food complex has all but purged bitter properties from fruits and vegetables in favor of enhanced sweet flavors. For example, today, we know grapefruit, a traditionally bitter fruit as increasingly sweet. 

Much like an artist’s palette, the palates in our mouths have complimentary flavors.  Certain flavors enhance one another, while other flavors detract.  In the absence of bitters, we tend to crave sweet.  Again, a relationship forcing us further out of balance. 

Bitter for Health with wild vegetables and herbs

We find reliable sources of bitter substances in wild vegetables and herbs, free from genetic or artificial modification. 

Bitter tasting herbs
Dandelion, a traditional healthy bitter food

As with the artist’s palette of colors, bitters contribute to forming balanced taste. Like a combination of beautiful colors, bitter taste enhances the complete product to make dishes exciting and interesting. A dish is well seasoned where all flavors come to harmony, with no single flavor masking another. 

The Hard Part of Bitters is Getting Started

The act of reintroducing bitters to one’s diet can raise hackles at first. The first step is often the hardest when it comes to introducing new habits to our diet.  As you consciously begin the process, you should notice the flavor becomes more appealing as it enters the mainstream of your diet.  Eventually, the taste of bitters becomes something you crave, just like sugar.

Using Bitter Herbs for Health
Bitter for health: Just the start is hard

As it relates to bitter flavors, an old German adage goes, the more unusual the bitter taste, the greater the need for bitter substances.  In other words, if you don’t like the taste, you probably need it to get back in balance.

You can find more information on bitters and health in our section on Bitters.