Of all the flavours to grace our taste buds (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami and perhaps oleogustus or fattiness), there is perhaps none as fascinating than that of bitterness.
Bitters certainly make themselves known, and for the most part these days, the flavour is universally despised – being described as a sharp, pungent, disagreeable flavour and used linguistically to characterize pain, harshness and things that are extremely difficult to bear: ‘a chronic and pervasive state of smouldering resentment’. Yet, when a bitter taste is recognised by receptors on the back of your tongue, yes, all the way to the back there, a chain of events begins, known as the ‘bitter reflex’[i] and big health magic happens.
You see, this bitter reflex triggers the release of the gastric hormone gastrin, which increases enzyme rich saliva - our first digestive enzyme, which breaks down carbohydrates. When you begin a meal with a bitter taste you are essentially alerting your digestive system, ‘Hey down there, wake up...food is on its way!’. This then releases a cascade of critical digestive events.
In the stomach, hydrochloric acid is secreted in preparation for the arrival of food through the oesophagus in order to break down protein, enhance the bioavailability of vitamin and minerals and destroys any harmful microbes present in your food.[ii] The small intestine then gets to work by prompting the liver to release bile and the gall bladder to handle bile excretion. Bile assists the liver in breaking down fats and helps it to get rid of waste products. Self-repair mechanisms in the intestinal wall are also stimulated, enhancing cell division and growth.[iii] The effect of bitters then extends to the pancreas which is stimulated to produce digestive enzymes and insulin that regulates blood sugar.[iv]
In short, this bitter reflex is known to reduce symptoms of poor digestion such as gas and bloating, constipation, loose stools and food allergies; enhance vitamin and mineral absorption; promote balanced blood sugar levels; protect the liver and strengthen eliminatory function; heal inflammatory damage to the gut wall; and reduce the incidence of allergic reactions.
Researchers at Italy’s University of Pavia (where bitter liquors are known as Amari and frequently consumed) gave overweight adults a bitters formula containing bitter artichoke leaves or a placebo. During the two-month study, participants ingested the bitters before meals. By the study’s end, those not on the placebo reported reduced appetite and consumption, along with lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels and smaller waistlines. All of this, from one humble flavour. It is unfortunate then, that nowadays hardly anyone eats enough bitters and we are bombarded with pre-eminence of salty, fatty, and sweet foods.
Yet, may I be bold enough to suggest that to embrace the bitter and bring it to the table is a sign of a mature palate. For why would we deprive ourselves of a great meal, gathering or celebration of such a vital element – for who would be the hero without a villain?
This is why most intact food systems around the world, bitters are a defining feature of the meal. From Italy’s Amari herbal liqueur made of macerate bitter herbs to create a pre-meal libation (aperitif) or an after-meal digestive aid (digestif), to India’s bitter melon chutney, China’s array of bittering herbal teas and tonics to ‘cleanse internal organs’, to Venezuela’s fabled Angostura bark which makes aromatic bitters, these herbal additions spark life, hospitality and good health. In all cases bitters are celebratory. They enliven meals and generously assist with the overconsumption of feasting assisting digestion, bloating, heartburn and belly upsets.
With this then said, if you were to add more bitters to your plate here in Australia, it is actually quite easy. One simply needs to add wild greens to the diet, including chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio or endive. These greens are wonderfully complex-tasting greens that can be easy grown in your garden or found at your local farmers’ market. Over the years, herbalists also have identified plants that are consistently the strongest and most effective bitters. These include gentian with its pure, lingering bitter taste; wormwood, bitter melon which can be added to sweet chutneys to round out a meal; quinine and even the leaves of artichoke which, at full strength, would make anyone’s face pucker.
In the busy-ness of everyday life, one of the most convenient method of using bitters may be to take a small amount of bitters tincture (herbal extract) in a little water before you eat, or to add a few bittering leaves to your next salad or smoothie.
By Sarah Lantz ~ Temptress Apothecary
This article was originally written for Australian Organic Pty Ltd. Please do not reprint. Copyright protected © 2020 Australian Organic Pty Ltd.
[i] Mills, S. & Bone, K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. 2000. London: Churchill Livingstone
[ii] Marieb, E. Human Anatomy and Physiology: Sixth ed. San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2004.
[iii] Waler, JM. The Bitter Remedy, The European Journal of Herbal Medicine. 6(2):28-33, 2003.
[iv] Harada, Y, Koseki, J. Sekine, H et al., Role of Bitter Taste Receptors in Regulating Gastric Accommodation in Guinea Pigs, J Pharm and Exp Thera, 2019, 369 (3) 466-472.