Bitters: The Missing Flavor

Include more bitter foods in your diet to jump-start sluggish digestion, balance appetite, and support healthy liver function.

| Winter 2016-2017

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.

Dandy Tummy Bitters Recipe

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. 

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