If you’ve ever watched a baby eat, it’s easy to see that some flavors get a bigger reaction than others, with sweetness being met by a happy grin and bitter often by disgusted facial contortions. Baby’s natural aversion to bitter is more than just fussiness, though, it’s actually a bit of evolution at play. Aversion to bitterness is thought to be an adaptation that may have helped keep our ancestors from feasting on poisonous plants. Fast-forward a few million years, and we’re considerably better equipped to determine edible from lethal botanicals and take advantage of their medicinal qualities. Simply by sprinkling them into salads or adding a few drops to drinks, we can enjoy the bitter benefits and flavor boost, all while giving digestion a healthy helping hand. Here’s why bitters deserve a place of honor in your diet:
The Digestive “On” Switch
For many of us, the bitter flavor is one we don’t actively seek out, but we should—it’s something of a multitasking medicine! When we eat bitter foods, their medicinal effect kicks off the digestive process with a bang. Seconds after they hit the taste receptors on your tongue, saliva starts to flow, gastric juices get into gear, and the gut gets ready to start processing the incoming meal and preps it for the elimination (in due time) to follow. Bitter acts like an on switch that gets your digestive system ready for action, stimulating the release of the enzymes needed to help your body break down protein, carbs, and fats. With all that bitter-boosted digestive action comes the bonus of better gut function and immunity; less gas, bloating, and constipation; better vitamin and nutrient absorption; and extra support for the liver and its natural detoxifying powers.
Boost Belly Power
Over time, the body loses some of its ability to break down food, as it produces fewer of the digestive enzymes that are essential to the digestive process. While supplementing with digestive enzymes at mealtime is always a good idea, particularly for those with less-than-optimal digestive function (constipation, gas, bloating, etc.), adding bitter foods—especially bitter veggies—to your daily routine is also an excellent way to provide extra whole-food digestive support. Not only do bitter veggies deliver loads of nutrients and gut-loving plant fiber, but bitter edibles have been shown to actually encourage the peristalsis “wave,” which moves food along the digestive tract—making bitter veggies a digestive win-win.
Make Dishes Sing
Bittersweet. Bitter cold. Bitter pill. Bitter isn’t usually associated with good things, but when it comes to food, it should be. Though many of us gravitate more naturally to sweet or salty, adding bitter—be it in seed, spice, herbal, or liquid form—gives even the most sedate dishes more kick, flavor, and aromatic interest, in addition to the bonus digestive boost. Which bitter edibles should you add to the mix? One study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition named its top bitter edible picks, which included: ginger, peppermint, aniseed, fennel, citrus fruits, dandelion, artichoke, melissa/lemon balm, and chamomile.
Get Your 50 Shades of Green
Remember all those greens you didn’t care for as a kid? Well, not surprisingly, many of them are leafy green superfoods that, now that you’re all grown up, are also the bitter ones you should be putting on your plate to aid digestion. Among the best of the leafy bitters are amaranth leaves; arugula; beet greens; endive; broccoli rabe; curly endive (frisée); dandelion greens; escarole; kale; mustard greens; nettles; Swiss chard; turnip greens; and watercress. Look for these no-brainer digestive aids at the farmers’ market, grow your own, or buy organic to minimize pesticide exposure. Add them to smoothies, salads, soups, and stir-frys, or eat them raw—and savor their grown-up bitter flavor.
Tame Your Tummy and Sweets Cravings
Long before there was a Walgreens on every corner and Pepto-Bismol on every shelf, people didn’t just live with nausea, heartburn, or upset stomachs, they did something about it—with bitters. Yes, bitters, the same ones now synonymous with artisanal cocktails, were originally a favorite natural home remedy used to tame digestion and tummy troubles. When your stomach is feeling a bit off, rather than swigging pink goo, try a few stomach-settling drops of bitters in water or seltzer. No belly trouble but given to sugar binges? Try starting meals with a bitters and seltzer “mocktail” to slow the entry of sugar into the bloodstream and help curb cravings for sweet flavors. Though traditional bitters contain alcohol, you can buy alcohol-free versions if you prefer. If possible, look for organic versions, or better yet, shop for the best ingredients and make your own.
NOTE: While using bitters is generally well-tolerated, avoid them if you are pregnant or have gallbladder disease or ulcers, and check with your doctor for possible interactions with prescription medications.