On the list of flavors you often crave, it’s probably safe to say that “bitter” isn’t at the top—or even on the list at all. While this kind of sharp taste found in foods like dandelion greens, citrus peels, and cruciferous veggies isn’t a favorite among many people—at least in parts of the world dominated by processed foods—natural foods with a bitter flavors often come with a wide range of health benefits. Here’s a look at what that bitter flavor is all about—and some of the reasons it deserves a place in your diet.
What Makes Certain Foods Bitter—And Why Don’t We Like It?
A food that tastes bitter all comes down to its chemical makeup. “Chemicals ranging from mild and moderate anti-nutrients to powerful beneficial antioxidants stimulate the bitter receptors on our tongue,” explains naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist Mark Iwanicki, N.D., L.Ac. “Once the bitter receptor on the tongue is stimulated, a signal is sent to the brain, which then lets us know we are consuming something bitter.”
If you’re not a fan of bitter foods, there’s a good reason for it. In fact, it may be your body’s natural defense mechanism. “Because many poisonous substances are bitter, we have evolved to associate bitter with danger,” Iwanicki explains. “These bitter compounds act as protective defense mechanisms for the plants to keep predators away.”
Another contributor here is the fact that so much of the standard American diet has become saturated with sugar, especially artificial sugar, which is much sweeter than natural cane sugar. “When your palate is overloaded with the taste of sweetness, your palate and taste buds physically change and you gravitate towards wanting more of that sweet taste,” says Iwanicki. “When you ‘train’ your tastebuds to tolerate other tastes—like bitterness—you are more likely to enjoy them.”
The Health Benefits Of Bitter Foods
Though they may not satisfy a craving for pizza, bitter foods can offer a host of health benefits that certainly are palatable. Here are five big ones that might just convince you to give them a fair shot.
1. They support digestion
Bitter foods help stimulate the production of saliva and stomach acid, both of which encourage proper digestion, explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. “Saliva is critical in helping break down the foods that you are eating and really starts the digestive process,” she says. “From there, having a stomach acid pH in the correct range is essential for proper digestion and for making sure that all enzymes and processes are activated.”
2. They nourish the gut microbiome
The gut microbiome, which is made up of trillions of good bacteria, bad bacteria, and other microorganisms, is important for healthy digestive functioning, explains Rodgers. “A lot of bitter foods are high in prebiotics, fiber that helps to feed the good bacteria in the gut,” she says. “This not only allows for better digestion, but it also helps to prevent ‘leaky gut,’ in which the lining of your gut becomes compromised and causes digestive issues.”
3. They help keep hunger at bay
Bitter foods may also play a role in satiety, or feeling satisfied after eating. In fact, recent research published in the journal Molecular Metabolism suggests that when bitter taste receptors located in the digestive system are stimulated, certain appetite-regulating gut hormones—including glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1)—are secreted, ultimately influencing our hunger and food intake. According to naturopathic doctor Yelena Deshko, N.D., founder of Timeless Health Clinic, this indicates that eating bitter foods may not only help keep hunger at bay but could also potentially support weight loss over time.
4. They bolster kidney function
Bitter foods support the body’s detoxification pathways through the liver and gallbladder, explains Iwanicki. “Eating bitter foods stimulates the ‘bitter reflex’, which releases bile from the gallbladder and liver,” he says. In other words, by stimulating the bitter reflex, we allow bile and associated toxins to accumulate in the stool and move out of the body.
5. They support nutrient absorption
While consuming nutrient-rich foods is important, so is ensuring our body’s ability to actually absorb those key components. Bitter foods help to stimulate the secretion of stomach acid and that stomach acid then stimulates the secretion of intrinsic factor, a protein that helps your body absorb vitamin B12 from the stomach lining, explains Rodgers. In this same way, bitter foods also promote the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), as well as iron.
How to incorporate bitter foods
If you’re looking for ways to increase your intake of bitter foods, such as arugula, kale, dandelion, Brussels sprouts, bitter melon, radicchio, fennel seeds, and chicory, a good place to start is actually by cutting back on sweets. By eating and drinking less sugar, you’ll make your taste buds more sensitive to sweetness, helping you crave it less and tolerate bitter foods more easily, says Katy Firisin, N.D., a naturopathic doctor at Coastal Natural Medicine in Connecticut.
From there, “adding bitter vegetables to more mild foods, like adding radicchio or dandelion to your usual salad greens or throwing some fennel seeds on your favorite chicken dish with other spices like thyme and rosemary, can help you become more accustomed to the flavors,” she suggests.
You can also opt to consume bitter foods in the form of supplements or tinctures. Many bitter herbs (including gentian, burdock root, and chamomile) are available as capsules or liquid herbal tinctures that can be slightly diluted in water, notes Firisin. You’ll also find all sorts of bitter herb-containing teas that can be used to bolster digestive function.
Iwanicki is a fan of using bitter tinctures before meals as a way to support digestion. “You can take a dropper full right before a meal to naturally stimulate the bitter reflex and get your digestive juices flowing,” he says. He suggests letting tinctures sit on your tongue, which is loaded with bitter receptors, to kickstart the bodily benefits.