Bitters for Health: The Lost Taste

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 palates with it?

Unlike salt and sweet, bitter flavors derive from countless different bitter substances. These natural 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.

Hildegard’s Bitter Herbs

Regardless of  the substance the healthy bitters derive from, they can be an effective asset towards overall health. As a start, consider Hildegard’s Original Bitters Tablet, inspired by Hildegard’s bitter herbs to supplement the natural and powerful effects of bitters. 

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, while others primarily serve as digestive aids. Ultimately, as one of the five flavors we perceive, bitters remain essential components of a healthy and balanced diet.

At the highest levels, bitters promote well-being, vitality, and health.

Grapefruit, a natural source of bitters
Grapefruit, a healthy bitter food

The regular consumption of bitters for health supports the production of digestive juices, promotes intestinal activity, and broadly supports the digestive system in the digestion of fats.

Bitters 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 gut. Modern science concludes that the second brain in our gut influences 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 natural weight loss.

How we appreciate bitter flavors

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 different ways.  Age may also play a role, with a decreasing sense of taste often accompanying aging. 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.

The balance of bitters

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 and naturally bitter foods.

Why Do You Prefer Sweet or Salty?

Why does bitterness commonly cause displeasure, while the taste of chocolate or chips seems universally delicious? Why is it that the foods that can benefit us most seem to be unappealing?

Brown frosted cake
Sweet and salty are preferred

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

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

The Weight of Our Modern Food Industry

It is not surprising that we instinctively favor sweet, salty and umami 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. Why do they do so? Because it is the taste that we are drawn to when our diets are unbalanced. As a result, we actively increase our dependence and tolerance for excessive flavors.  

Hamburger and french fries
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, umami, sour, and bitter. Our modern diets depend heavily on the first three flavors, sweet, salty, and umami, while sour flavors remain present, but are declining in most western cuisine. So in a sense, 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 flavors.  Again, a relationship forcing our dietary health further out of balance.

Bitters 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 — because these natural bitters are often unrefined by the modern food industry.

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

As with most new things, 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 natural bitters becomes something you crave, just like sugar.

Starting square of a board game
Bitter for health: Just the start is hard

As it relates to bitters for health, 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. Additionally, you can find our bitters tablets on our online store.