Last week, I talked about the importance of boosting your digestion by improving your levels of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile.
One of the best ways to do all of that, naturally, is to regularly partake of the bitter flavor.
For most of us, this takes some getting used to, but the effort is well worth it for the health benefits, and, over time, most people come to love this under-valued and under-utilized flavor. And if not love, well, at least appreciate it more for its wonderful health benefits!
To begin or grow your relationship with bitter, incorporate bitter-flavored foods, bitter beverages, and digestive bitters into your life.
Let’s talk a little bit about each of those.
Ranging from mildly bitter to intensely so, there’s a long list of bitter foods for you to choose from to begin to embrace the bitter flavor. For example, leafy greens range from the mildly bitter romaine lettuce, to moderately bitter arugula, to the more bitter kale. Most of the foods in the Brassica family have some degree of bitterness to them.
Like with bitter foods, there’s lots of bitter beverages to choose from, ranging in taste from very mildly bitter (such as white tea), to moderately so (green tea), to intensely bitter (espresso, and the infamous kuding tea).
Some examples of bitter teas (from the “Beverages That Boost Detoxing” lesson of Dr. Emily’s 10-Day Detox):
Start low and slow with mildly bitter beverages, or be bold and adventurous and dive straight into trying the strong stuff! You might be surprised how much you come to love it.
Tip: You can adjust the bitterness of tea by brewing it for a shorter (milder) or longer (more bitter) period, brewing it with hotter water (more bitter) or cooler water (less bitter), or even doing an overnight cold infusion (mildest), or by using more or fewer tea leaves. And, if you brew some tea and you find it is too bitter for you, adding a pinch of salt will cut the bitter flavor considerably. (This trick works for coffee, and for bitter foods, too, btw.)
In use for 1,000s of years, digestive bitters are taken before or after a meal to help stimulate and promote healthy digestion.
To start with, you might want to buy some ready-made bitters – my favorites are Mountain Rose Herbs’ 3 types of bitters: Classic, Chai and Botanical, as well as the classic digestif from Germany, Underberg.
Once you get going with using bitters, you may find that you enjoy them so much, and use them so much, that you want to make your own! This can be really fun, and also save you beaucoup bucks.
DIY Bitters is a great book for this – it’s a beautifully done how-to guide that explores the history and health benefits of bitters, and takes you through the process of making your own digestive bitters blends at home.*
Bitters make themselves known. You get a distinct impression when tasting them, unmasked and unadorned, in some seltzer water: challenging, but also familiar (we’ve all tasted bitterness), a foil for the more common flavors on the table. Here is an opportunity to invite juicy conversation!
What are you thinking?
What is this stuff?
This tastes bad!
At first blush, we might agree. In the most superficial ways, bitters taste bad. The most bitter plants, isolated, are nasty, from the milder rinds of citrus fruits to the intense Andrographis plant, which comes off as a cross between tobacco, soap and ashy dirt.
But “bitters” are more than just these intense botanicals: They are formulas – recipes balanced atop a bitter foundation, like an apple around its bitter core. These formulas, when blended into a cocktail or served as counterpoints at the dinner table, allow this most challenging flavor to come out, to be showcased and enjoyed. In so doing, they highlight the other ingredients even more – for what would the hero be without the villain? Or the weekend without the workweek? Would a great drink or a novel dish be complete without the bitter flavor to set it off?
Embracing bitter and bringing it to the table are signs of a mature palate. The best of life shines brighter when framed by challenge, and sometimes difficulty. So why do we often omit bitter? And how and why should we bring it back?
The Bitter Truth: What Science Says
Enjoying a balance of flavors at the bar or dinner table is one thing. But there is interesting research that points to how incorporating the bitter flavor in our lives positively affects our eating patterns, too. Scientists at Italy’s University of Pavia (where bitter liqueurs, known as amari, are common) gave overweight adults a bitters formula containing artichoke leaves or a placebo. During the study, which lasted two months, participants took the bitters before eating. By the study’s end, those taking the bitters reported reduced appetite and consumption, along with lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and smaller waistlines.
We’ve learned a lot about why this happens: Bitters change the way our guts work, especially when we taste them, making our stomachs feel fuller more quickly and affecting the secretion of enzymes that digest our food and the hormones that control our appetite. The deeper you dig, the more you find that omitting the bitter flavor really is like sleeping on the beach all the time – you feel sluggish, gain weight, and get bored.
This is why, in most intact food systems around the world, you see the judicious addition of the bitter flavor. From Italy’s amari and India’s bitter melon chutney, to China’s bitters to “cleanse the internal organs” and Venezuela’s fabled Angostura bark, these herbal formulas spark life, conviviality, and good health. In all cases, bitters are celebratory. They enliven meals and help with the consequences of feasting, not only reducing overconsumption, but also helping with indigestion, heartburn, bloating, and stomach upset. As such, bitters are often found as bookends to the meal – taken as an aperitif in sparkling water or a cocktail before meals, and as a slowly sipped digestif after meals (often in lieu of dessert). Today’s clinical research validates these traditional uses.
Our current understanding is that, along with supporting healthy digestion, bitters also enhance the liver’s ability to flush inflammatory compounds and irritating substances from our bodies [aka detoxify!] – especially if used as part of a daily habit. In fact, bitters are so good for liver function that bitter ingredients such as milk thistle, a widely used bitter plant, have been tested for treating liver problems such as hepatitis, liver cancer, cirrhosis, and toxicity from drugs and alcohol – all with consistently positive results.
Bitter plants are also well known for their benefits to the heart, for their relaxing effect at the end of a stressful day, for their aphrodisiacal qualities, and more.
It makes sense that old-time healers called bitter blends “tonics”. The bitter flavor highlights the powerful botanical chemistry that enlivens, connects and invigorates us. Simple bitterness can do this: Your eyes brighten, your brow furrows in heightened awareness, your back straightens.
With all these potential benefits – healthier weight, better digestion, optimal liver function, more effective detoxifying, reduced inflammation, improved heart function, reduced anxiety, improved sex drive – are you ready to engage more with the bitter flavor?
Here are my top 20 bitter foods:
If you’d like to download a copy of this infographic, drop me a note at info at swcnm dot com, and I’ll send it to you as a high quality image. Then you can print it out and put it up on your fridge to remind and encourage you to continue developing your relationship with bitter. 😊
*Excerpt reprinted with permission.
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