Sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter: These are the five major flavors that the roughly 10,000 taste buds speckling your tongue and throat have been primed to identify. Traditional cultures believed in the fundamental importance of consuming a rich balance of all five flavors because each one has unique gastronomic qualities and health indications. Bitter has an excitable quality that some people would describe as disagreeable and harsh. The very word “bitter” has even become linguistically associated with expressions of anger, resentment, pain, and reactivity.
Large numbers of the diverse roots, barks, flowers, and herbs of the wild plant kingdom are bursting with complex bitter flavor. However, with the overwhelming load of sugar-encrusted, salt-sprinkled, and MSG-doused foods filling our plates, bitterness has essentially vanished from the modern palate. This unfortunate disappearance has done more than simply change the tang and smack-factor of our foods. The general lack of bitter foods in our diets may very well be contributing to widespread problems with digestion and appetite control.
Health Benefits of Bitters
Including bitter foods in the diet isn’t simply a matter of reviving tradition or taste — bitter-flavored foods have a history of healing. From the wine-infused herbal concoctions used by ancient Egyptians, to the 16th century prescriptions of famous physician Paracelsus, elixirs brewed from carefully selected bitter herbs have been treasured as helpful remedies throughout the ages. Studies have confirmed that getting an adequate amount of bitter flavor is important for digestive balance and is linked with many health benefits. Digesting bitters regularly has been shown to:
• Curb sugar cravings
• Soothe gas and bloating
• Relieve occasional heartburn
• Encourage digestive enzymes, bile, and necessary stomach acids
• Calm upset stomach and nausea
• Increase absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
• Help maintain healthy blood sugar levels
• Balance appetite
• Ease constipation and regulate bowel movements
• Support liver function and healthy skin
Getting Bitters Back in Our Diets
It has become increasingly difficult to find quality bitter foods in the marketplace. Even the fruit and vegetable cultivars packed into produce departments have been intentionally bred to minimize bitterness and have been selected instead for qualities of sweetness, bright color, and full shape. While these traits certainly make produce shopping more appealing to browsing consumers, they also represent our disregard for nutritional value as well as phytonutrient, antioxidant, and flavonoid variety in our foods. Today, true bitter flavor is enjoyed in just a few commonly munched-on items, including greens (particularly dandelion and arugula), coffee, hops, olives, and dark chocolate.
A few not-so-common botanicals that have a natural bitter flavor include gentian, cascarilla, cassia, and cinchona bark, among others. To make up for the general deficit of bitter flavors in most modern diets, many practitioners recommend the use of a supplemental herbal tonic or tincture that includes at least one of these plants.
You can find bitter tonics at many health food stores and online. I personally love Urban Moonshine bitters, which have been carefully crafted by a Vermont herbalist using local, Certified Organic ingredients. If you want to avoid the alcohol that’s traditionally used as a solvent and preservative in bitter tonics, Flora’s Swedish Bitters also offers a nonalcoholic version that’s equally as potent and beneficial. If you’d like to make your own simple bitter tonic, see the Dandy Tummy Bitters Recipe.
Grow Your Own Bitters
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Easy to forage and cultivate across the United States, dandelion root is a popular addition to digestive tinctures, and dandelion greens lend a bitter bite to seasonal salads. If you’d like to dedicate a portion of your garden to dandelions, either wait to see if this prolific “weed” comes up naturally, or order seed from Johnny’s or Strictly Medicinal Seeds.
Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea): Grown for the bitter root, this perennial is hardy to negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit and prefers rich, moist soil in partial shade. Sow in fall, winter, or very early spring for spring germination. The rare gentian plant is native to the mountain meadows of central and southern Europe and Asia Minor and is protected in its native habitat. Help conserve and protect this beneficial plant by adding it to your home garden with seeds from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): This aromatic perennial is one of the oldest cultivated plants and was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons. ‘Florence’ and ‘Bronze’ fennel are both available from Seed Savers Exchange, and the company recommends starting the seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last spring frost in your area. Fennel can grow up to 6 feet tall and shouldn’t be planted near dill because their cross-pollination results in strangely flavored seeds for both plants.
Arugula (Eruca sativa): These cold-hardy, peppery greens are a great introductory flavor for anyone who may not be used to bitter foods. Toss fresh arugula in salads, replace basil in pesto, or slightly wilt it and top a pizza. Multiple heirloom cultivars are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, along with ‘Wild Rocket’ arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia), which reportedly has a more pungent taste than traditional arugula.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia): This melon is a member of the squash family, and its vines grow up to 16 feet long. Trellising is recommended because the fruits have a tendency to rot in moist soil; the trellis also makes the immature, 4- to 6-inch long fruit easier to spot and harvest. To eat bitter melon, slice the fruit in half and remove the seeds and pith; do not peel it. According to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which sells ‘Green Skin’ bitter melon, the melon is a staple in much of Asia, where its mildly bitter flavor is appreciated in soups and curries.
Kayla Grossmann-LeMoine is a registered nurse and integrative health advocate. She helps run her family’s online store, Radiant Life, which offers nutrient-dense food and supplements along with materials to stock an eco-friendly home.