Bitter = Better Digestion
Sweet, salty, sour, pungent, astringent, bitter and most recently recognized, umami are all taste receptors that humans possess. Each taste feeds and nourishes us in a unique way. American taste buds are well primed for sweet, salty and umami and we are becoming more familiar with the need for sour food in our diet, specifically lacto-fermented (probiotic) foods. Pungent foods come in the form of chili peppers, garlic, herbs and spices; astringent in grains, legumes, herbs, raw fruits and vegetables. Critically lacking in this equation is bitter. Who likes bitter? It turns out that this bitter flavor is very critical to a healthy digestive system.
Why does a healthy digestive system matter? Good health comes from good digestion! It's where our nutrients are absorbed. Where the majority of detoxification takes place. Where the majority of our immune system resides. It even plays a part in emotional health. Essentially, a healthy digestive system equals a healthy you.
Back to bitter. What is it about bitter that brings about better digestion? It's actually a fascinating process. Bitter foods signal important digestive functions. Essentially, it tells our body food is coming. Get ready! Specifically, the bitter flavor stimulates taste buds and saliva that signal digestive enzymes in the pancreas, bile production from the liver, and hydrochloric acid production in the stomach. This is a pretty juicy reaction and these digestive juices are exactly what we need for proper digestion to take place. They help break down food, aid in absorption and assimilation of nutrients and aid in the detoxification process. Bitter flavored foods benefit our digestion, which in turn encourages the following:
A good gut flora
Alleviation of allergy and food intolerances
Reduced sugar cravings
Efficient digestion of fats
Relief from bloating, gas and nausea
Relief from heartburn and reflux
Lower blood pressure
Elimination of acne
Healthy weight maintenance
Improved gallbladder and liver function
Improved immune response
Stable blood sugar
You may be tempted to look for a pill or capsule; something that allows you to bypass the bitter flavor, but still reap the benefits. The idea might also occur to put bitter greens in a sweet smoothie to mask the bitter flavor. Unfortunately, experiencing the bitter flavor is exactly what's necessary. Not surprisingly, many other cuisines incorporate bitter foods at the beginning of a meal. I have a hunch that's exactly where the tradition of a salad at the beginning of a meal came from. Unfortunately, our palate has turned to flavorless iceberg lettuce instead of more bitter greens that would be so beneficial for our digestion. In fact, adding bitter greens and herbs to your salads are an excellent way to incorporate bitter flavor into your diet. You can also add bitter food to soup and other savory preparations, both raw and cooked. Below is a list of foods on the bitter spectrum. Some have a more pronounced bitter flavor than others. Start with foods that are most palatable to you and gradually introduce others, to expand your palate and reap the digestive rewards.
We can learn something from Chinese culinary tradition which incorporates a bitter food into each meal. Likewise, Europeans have a culinary tradition of digestive bitters. For the most benefit, include a wide variety of bitter foods on a frequent basis with your meals.