Many nutritionists and other health experts believe that far too many modern industrialised humans are deficient in bitter substances, which, in part, contributes to our epic rise in digestive-related illnesses, inflammatory conditions, immune challenges, diabetes, and more.
In a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, “One study found that only five to eight per cent of the calories we eat are bitter. But the compounds that make foods taste bitter (carotenoids in sweet potatoes and spinach, flavonoids in cranberries and kale, polyphenols in wine) also make them good for us. Consider the initial taste shock of bitter foods such as cranberries, cocoa and kale to be positive, rather than negative.
Bitter = healthful
Here are a few of the health benefits of bitter foods.
- Helps to absorb nutrients
While bitterness is often perceived as unpleasant, the interaction between bitter constituents in foods and our bitter taste receptors stimulate the production of gastric acid in the stomach. This helps prime the stomach for the food it is about to encounter. “Bitter foods and herbs help to stimulate digestive juices and support food digestion,” says professional dietitian Nicole Dube of Halifax, N.S. “Bitter foods help stimulate our taste receptors on the tongue, which subsequently stimulates enzyme production and bile flow. The better your food is digested, the more nutrients you will absorb from your food. It doesn’t matter what you eat, if you can’t absorb it, it won’t be of much benefit to you.”
- Balances taste buds and controls that sweet tooth
The more bitter greens we eat, the more bitter greens we want.
“We all have different sensory levels. It depends on genetics, what you’ve trained your body to like, what your mother ate when you were in utero or what your heritage is,” says Theresa Albert, a Toronto-based registered nutritionist and founder of the website, My Friend in Food. In Ayurvedic tradition, bitter foods are thought to reduce food cravings and aid in weight loss. In TCM, bitter foods are prized for ‘removing heat’ in the body – could that speak to their very modern ‘anti-inflammatory’ benefits?
- Cleanses the body
Bitter roots and veggies contain fiber to help sweep wastes through the digestive tract. Bitter foods also contain sulfur-based compounds which support the natural detoxification pathways in the liver; helping it to do what it is meant to do – keep your body clean and clear.
“We’re just starting to discover the benefits of greens,” says Albert, who explained that centuries ago, in ancient Chinese and Hindu diets, culinary traditions regularly included bitter foods.
- Stimulates metabolism
Bitter foods and herbs like green tea have been shown to boost metabolism. Drinking green tea is one of the easiest ways to rev up your metabolism. A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that green tea-extract increases the metabolism by four per cent over a 24-hour period. Green tea has also been shown to inhibit fat absorption—the movement of glucose into fat cells, support healthy glucose levels after eating a meal, prevent insulin spikes which prevents fat storage, and reduce appetite. People that choose sweet foods over bitter foods are also at risk for metabolic syndrome.
- Fights free radicals and stimulates immune function
Recent studies have shown that bitter foods, including dark chocolate, can help fight free radicals in the body. Of course, bitter foods are usually nutrient dense. Bitter foods pack plenty of nutrition into each bite. For instance, beta-carotene for healthy skin; folate for a healthy nervous system; vitamin K for healthy blood clotting and phyto-chemicals for healthy inflammation response, managing cholesterol, balance hormones, detoxify the blood and metabolizes fats. Many greens are also mineral rich; gentle cooking will help make those minerals more bioavailable to the human body.