The Bitter Truth – On the Value of Bitter Foods

Bitterness is a taste most of us try to avoid. Expressions such as “bitter enemies” and “a bitter pill to swallow ” show how averse we are to this flavor. We greatly prefer the other three primary flavors – nearly everything Americans eat is a combination of sweet, salty, and sour. These are often accented with spiciness or “piquance” and umami. (Umami is a harder taste experience to describe, but it’s often translated as a “savory” or mushroomy quality, and it is the specific enhancement imparted by MSG.) But, bitterness? No, thanks.

Perhaps we dislike bitterness in part because it is the flavor our taste buds are most sensitive to. Compared to our perception of saltiness, sweetness, and sourness, we can pick up an infinitesimal degree of bitterness in food or drink. This is probably a useful adaptation, since many poisons are bitter. But, many medicines are also bitter, and there are certain medicinal qualities that many bitter substances have in common. I believe that consuming bitter foods in moderation can be healthful. It also provides a vital balance to our relative overconsumption of the other flavors.

I’ll start by explaining bitterness from the perspective of Chinese medicine, because I feel it has the most interesting explanation of tastes. But the Chinese are certainly not the only culture to value bitter herbs. They have been treasured for centuries by cultures worldwide. In Chinese Medicine, the properties of foods and herbs are thought to derive largely from the flavors they possess. The flavors themselves are considered to be energetic characteristics that affect the body far beyond our perception of them at the tongue. Textbooks of Chinese Herbal Medicine will often state that a certain herb has a certain therapeutic action because it has a certain flavor and an affinity for a certain part of the body.

Sweetness, for instance, is seen as having a nourishing and consolidating effect on our energy, especially at the midsection. This is why so many comfort foods are sweet, and most naturally sweet foods (like rice and bananas) tend to be easy on the stomach. But, by the same token, too much consolidation can have a cloying effect. This makes us pack on the pounds around our bellies when we eat too much sugar, and it also makes us feel ill the day after Halloween.

Spiciness or pungency, by comparison, has an opening or expansive energy. It promotes movement, gets our circulation going, and may even open our sinuses and pores. When you eat something spicy, it’s not uncommon to start sweating, or for your nose to run, or even for your eyes to water. Sourness has a moistening and astringent effect. This is why sour drinks often seem even more thirst quenching than water alone.

Bitterness has a descending or draining energy. Bitter herbs help drain and clear excesses from our system. Many bitter herbs are detoxifying, and they often promote urination or bowel movement. Bitter herbs frequently act on the liver and gallbladder as choleretics (promoting bile production) and/or cholagogues (promoting bile secretion). Bile is essential for the digestion of fats, including the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Bile also stimulates the bowels and kills some bacteria that may be present in our food. These effects are especially useful after overconsumption of rich foods.

The stomach is understood in Chinese medicine as having a downward dynamic. It receives food from the esophagus above, and, after working on it with its gastric juices, should send it down to the intestines. When the stomach isn’t functioning properly, because of illness, overeating, stress, food sensitivity, or eating too fast, the stomach’s contents may fail to descend, or may even go upward instead. Examples are acid reflux (heartburn), belching, nausea and vomiting, bloating, hiccups, dizziness, and just plain feeling yucky in the middle and upper body. Because of their descending and draining qualities and their action on bile production/secretion, bitter agents are often very helpful for these conditions. Coffee (usually as espresso) and salad, both somewhat bitter, are frequently consumed after meals in Europe for this reason.

There are just a small handful of bitter things an American is likely to encounter. Three of the most common are beer (in which the bitterness comes from hops flowers, which are used to offset the otherwise overly sweet taste of grain malt), chocolate and coffee.  Unfortunately, these are not the healthiest of bitter substances, though I do believe they can have some benefits in moderation.

If you usually drink coffee with cream (or milk or a creamy non-dairy alternative) and sugar, you are probably trying to avoid its bitterness, and you’re negating some of its benefits.  First, stop using sugar.  You can easily get used to coffee with only cream added.  (The cream itself is rather sweet.)  Then gradually reduce the amount of cream you use.  Over time, you can convert yourself to being a black (or at least dark brown) coffee drinker.  Not only will you get more benefit from the bitter properties, you will have three added bonuses.  First, you can claim a certain degree of toughness that comes with being someone who drinks black coffee.  Second, it’s harder to drink too much black coffee than it is to drink too much sweet and creamy coffee; hopefully this will help you moderate your consumption.  Third, you won’t be consuming a bunch of cream and sugar.

We take similar efforts to de-bitter chocolate, and in the process, most the health benefits which have been so excitedly touted by chocolate lovers are lost. The Kuna people of Central and South America consume a lot of it and have less cardiovascular disease than we do, but they drink about five cups of it each day, in all of its bitterness – with no dairy or sweeteners. Nearly 90% of the primary beneficial compounds (flavonoids) are lost in the process of converting raw cacao into chocolate. Truly raw cacao is not eaten, and it isn’t available in the American market. But I’m less concerned about what people do with their chocolate than their coffee, since coffee drinkers typically consume a couple cups a day, while most people treat chocolate as a less frequent indulgence. However, if you consume chocolate often, here’s some food for thought. First, as with coffee, the worst part about chocolate is probably the sugar. There are more companies making chocolate with reduced sugar these days – try it as a healthier alternative. Second, chocolate is a pretty allergenic substance. Many people are sensitive to it. Some say it’s due to the inevitable presence of cockroach parts in chocolate . . . others say this is an urban myth. In any case, it’s always worth checking it with your body after eating some.

Your main healthy source of bitterness is likely to be green vegetables.  Nearly all leafy greens are somewhat bitter, especially endive (escarole), chicory, and young dandelion greens.  Broccoli, mustard greens, kale, cauliflower, chard, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, uncured olives, burdock root, cucumbers (peel) and grapefruit juice can all be bitter.

Stronger bitter herbs are usually encountered only in preparations made specifically to highlight their bitterness. These are used in alcoholic beverages and as after-meal digestifs. Gentian root is the classic bitter herb. It is used to produce Angostura bitters, originally prescribed for sea sickness and stomach problems, and now an ingredient in several mixed drinks. Herbalists of the European and American naturopathic traditions consider gentian and other bitter herbs to have the ability not just to stimulate gastric activity, but to improve the tone and function of the digestive system.

Rudolf Weiss, a famous German doctor and pioneer in herbal medicine, said of gentian, “A pure bitter (the bitter taste is detectable even at a dilution of 1 part in 20,000). Stimulates gastric secretions and motility and improves tone. It is active as soon as it is absorbed through the mouth’s mucus membranes.” The old school American herbalist, John Christopher, said gentian is “one of the most valuable bitter tonics and best strengtheners of the human system.” He called its effect “invigorating.”

Quinine, which comes from cinchona bark (a South American tree), is famous as the first effective treatment for malaria. It’s intensely bitter and shares some medicinal properties with gentian and other bitters. The bitterness of quinine is the standard to which all other bitter substances are compared.  Quinine is most often encountered in tonic water, which goes very well with a wedge of lime and some good gin.

Citrus peel is a wonderful bitter agent. It can be used fresh, extracted in alcohol, or dried and aged and taken as a powder or tea. Fruity and floral tones make it more interesting and less of a pure bitter than gentian or quinine. Any citrus peel can be used. Common fruits used for bitters include lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, bitter orange, and grapefruit. A delicious example is the famous Italian limoncello, a liqueur made from Sorrento lemon peel (or whole lemons), although, depending on the preparation, it’s sometimes made to taste more like Mad Dog 20/20 and less like a bitter digestif.

Other common bitters include goldenseal root, rhubarb root, artichoke leaf, cascarilla bark, wormwood leaf, yarrow flowers, and more. A wide range of aromatic herbs may be combined with bitters to enhance their effect when used to soothe the digestive tract. Mint, anise, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, ginger, and thyme are some common ones. These bitters and aromatics are available in a vast array of commercial preparations, most of which originate in Europe. However, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in bitters in the United States, with boutique manufacturers popping up alongside the thriving foodie culture.

Consider broadening your taste horizons, or at least offsetting your sweet, sour, and salty consumption with a bit of bitter. See if you feel lighter than usual after dinner if you have something bitter. To invigorate the digestive system and stimulate the appetite before a meal, you can take a small amount of a bitter herb (such as tincture of gentian – about a dropperful) in a little water, 20 to 30 minutes before a meal.  To soothe the digestive system after overeating, or having eaten foods that don’t agree with you, try a bit more – one to three teaspoons of a bitter tincture is usually sufficient. Even if your taste buds don’t love it, your body just might.