February 27, 2017
By: Julia Pleasant, RDN, LD
For millennia, traditional cultures around the world have endorsed the importance of balancing the five major flavors—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami--for optimum health. Of these, the power of digestive bitters has been harnessed most often in herbal and medicinal preparations for the effects it elicits on the digestive system.
In this modern world where salty and sweet flavors dominate most palates and bitter compounds are systematically bred out of conventional crops, there is no denying most westerners’ over-reliance on pharmaceuticals to treat digestive disorders. In contrast, bitter foods are thought to stimulate appetite and digestive function by increasing the secretion of saliva, stomach acid, and digestive enzymes. Throughout history they have been prescribed by doctors and herbalists for disorders such as low hydrochloric acid production, indigestion, gas and bloating, and poor appetite.
Recent research reveals that bitter taste receptors are actually present throughout the body, including in thyroid, lung and bronchial tissue. Bitter receptor sites along the gastrointestinal tract are found not only in the oral cavity, but also the esophagus, stomach, and pancreas. Though in these locations they do not stimulate taste receptors in the brain, they are able to sense nutrients and activate metabolic processes including the release of hormones such as ghrelin, glucagon, and insulin that regulate appetite and blood sugar balance. Further studies are being conducted to determine how bitter agents may be useful in treating metabolic disorders such as type II diabetes and obesity.
To balance the deficiency of bitter foods in western diets, traditional medicine practitioners often prescribe supplemental bitters in the form of tonics, teas, and tinctures. These preparations usually contain one or more bitter herbs such as gentian, angelica, aloe, orange peel, chamomile, yarrow, milk thistle, and dandelion root. Similar formulas (often named “digestive bitters”) can often be found in the supplement section of most health food stores.
Food Sources of Digestive Bitters
Available in most Asian markets, bitter melon looks like a bumpy cucumber and can be used in soups and stir-fries.
Try this Asian Bitter Melon Stirfry, along with some preparation tips, from Serious Eats:
Found in abundance at springtime farmers markets, dandelion leaves can be used in salads, smoothies, soups, and juices.
Try this Dandelion Pumpkin Seed Pesto from TheKitchn:
The higher the cacao content, the bitter better! Try these gorgeous dark chocolate treats:
Raddichio, Arugula, Endive & Watercress
Amp up salads with these colorful bitter digestive leaves. Not sure how to dress them? Check out these tips from Bon Appetit!
Turmeric can be used dried or fresh in soups, curries, smoothies, and juices, or sip on this traditional Ayurvedic brew.