Many of us know how detrimental sweet things are to the state of our bodies, teeth, nervous system and skin. But did you know that its antagonistic bitter taste has the polar opposite effect on our receptors and overall health?
Foods like bitter radish, sage tea or even a grapefruit are not exactly as appealing as a chocolate and honey coated nut bar. But their rather unpleasant taste is fully redeemed by the benefits of such foods for our digestion, immunity and cognitive function.
The good news for all of you with a sweet tooth out there is that incorporating bitter food into your diet is easier than it might seem. Here is how.
Contrary to evolution
Bitter taste is often the last to be mentioned in a list of favourites, taken over by zesty/acidic and hot/spicy flavours. To be fair this preference makes perfect sense. The function of a bitter flavour in plants or fruits was designed to signal our ancestors of their potential threat, poisonous qualities or was simply a sign that they weren’t quite ripe.
Evolution taught us to stay away from bitter food, although the same rule does not apply for many when it comes to a double espresso or dark chocolate. Even the biggest foodies are unlikely to be fans of Chinese bitter melon or pink radish, not to mention such niche ingredients as viburnum berries, which only some might risk consuming in large quantities.
The good news is that even the smallest concentration is enough for us to reap the benefits. Mild bitterness which is so common for leafy greens, sesame and broccoli will positively affect your health.
1/ Improves digestion
Our body consists of multiple receptors, which perceive the bitter flavours through the mouth, stomach, liver, gut and pancreas. A stimulation of these receptors promotes digestive fermentation, leading to better absorption of nutrients from food.
The impact of such foods as South Indian foxtail millet ‘Thinai’ and chicory root on our digestive system is akin to that of probiotics: both stimulate the growth of healthy gut bacteria and make the overall microbiome more diverse. Given the link between the gut and mental health, there is all the more reason to think that a diet rich in bitter dishes and drinks can be mood boosting in the long-run (unlike sweets).
2/ Regulates blood sugar levels
Traditional medicine has used bitter herbal infusions for centuries to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Given insulin’s role in our perception of bitter flavours, the hypoglycaemic effect of any products with such properties make sense. While radish might be no remedy for diabetes, it is a great counterbalance to all those cheesecakes.
3/ Curbs your appetite
Bitter products can supress our desire for sweet flavours and keep our overall appetite in check. Researchers explain this through a complicated mechanism, which includes hormones involved in our feeling of satiety. This process is too complex even for scientists but you do not need a PhD to appreciate its benefits. The evidence speaks for itself. Participants of a small case study consumed capsules with bitter compounds one hour before lunch and ate 30% fewer calories as a result than those on placebo pills.
4/ Improves liver function
While sweet flavours contribute to liver obesity, bitter foods support its health. Even the most insignificant amount and such imperceptible bitterness as the one found in leafy greens, speeds up detoxification, coordinates the metabolism of sugar and fats and lowers cholesterol. All in all, it has a positive impact on our bodies.
What to eat?
Even if you are one of those people who cannot eat a grapefruit segment without wincing, there are plenty of simple ways to top up your menu with bitter flavours. Broccoli, green salads, cacao, cilantro, rucola, black coffee, tea and chocolate are all good sources of that much-needed dose of bitterness.
Not a fan of broccoli? Try replacing it with other cruciferous vegetables. Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, turnips, swedes and radish contain bitter compounds known as glucosinolates, which are beneficial to our health. Evidence shows that these substances have anti-cancerogenic properties. Although these studies are still few and far between, the USA’s National Cancer Institute does not hesitate to include cruciferous veg in their list of recommended 5-9 portions of fruit and veg a day to help reduce the risk of developing oncological diseases.
Broccoli, green salads, cacao, cilantro, rucola, black coffee, tea and chocolate are all good sources of that much-needed dose of bitterness.
The healing properties of bitter flavours can be a good prompt to include such plants as a dandelion or chicory in your diet. That’s right, dandelion greens can be consumed and chicory is as great in powder form (as an alternative to coffee) as it is fresh. Both are rich in vitamins A, C and K, calcium, iron and inulin: a probiotic which promotes the functioning of our gastrointestinal tract.
Green tea is bitter due to its catechin and polyphenol contents, which act as antioxidants and reduce inflammation. In other words, it promotes our overall wellbeing and supports the brain, cardiovascular system and bone density. Even a cup of tea per day reduces the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 20%.
The skin of citrus fruits, which is so bitter to the taste, contains a lot more flavonoids than its flesh. Not up to eating your lemons with the skin on? Grate it into your baking or make a herbal tea using dried tangerine skins.
Even a cup of green tea per day reduces the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 20%.
For those more willing to experiment, try eating Chinese bitter melon, one of the most bitter veg known to man. It has little to do with melons and looks like a wrinkly cucumber. Despite its unappealing looks and peculiar taste, it boasts heaps of antioxidants and an ability to lower blood sugar.
Lastly, a food that needs no introduction: dark chocolate with high cacao contents. Now who could say no to that?