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More bitter more better: Bitter flavors for better health

bitter flavors for health

Sages and scientists agree: the world as we know it can be divided into seven different flavors. They are, in alphabetical order, astringent, bitter, pungent, saltysour, sweet, and umami. And when it comes to physical health, the bitter flavors are probably the most important.

Everyone has their own likes and dislikes from the flavor palette, but life without anyone of them would be incomplete. Some of us have a sweet tooth for candy and ice cream, while others prefer the salty refreshment from a bag of chips. I love a good pungent bowl of Panang curry from my favorite Thai restaurant, but it still wouldn’t taste right without the notes of sour and umami.

Bring on the bitter

It’s not everyday that you get a craving for bitter, but it is essential to overall health. And it could come in many forms. Here are a few examples of where you might find some of that bitter goodness.

  • angelica
  • barberry
  • burdock
  • barberry root
  • calamus root
  • chamomile
  • cinchona bark
  • dandelion
  • gentian
  • horehound
  • mugwort
  • orris root
  • quassia bark
  • sarsaparilla
  • walnut
  • wormwood

As you can see, the herbalist’s apothecary is just overflowing with bitter flavors. And they can be useful in treating a tremendous range of ailments, from inflammation to immunity to digestion.

Detecting bitters

The body has a number of ways to detect the compounds that produce the bitterness. We have flavor receptors in our mouths, but our gut, liver and pancreas can also sense these critical compounds.

One reason is that bitter flavor is often an indicator of toxicity. And millions of years of evolution have trained our bodies to detect and avoid anything that could be poisonous.

As is often the case however, what’s dangerous in large quantities can actually be very therapeutic in smaller doses. And the bitter herbs and roots of herbal medicine are a perfect example of this.

Getting better with bitters

Here are a half dozen examples of some bitter flavors that could be used for a wide variety of health benefits.

Burdock: If you’ve ever bitten into a root of burdock, well, you’d have to be a little crazy. Because it’s incredibly bitter, leaves roots and all. But taken as a supplement, the plant has a great number of medicinal properties. People take burdock, often in the form of a tea, to reduce fever, relieve constipation, and purify the blood.

Dandelion: We’ve covered this common herb in greater detail in an earlier article, but the benefits and versatility of dandelion cannot be overstated. It’s also extremely easy to come by, and makes a simple addition to any green salad. A salad made entirely of dandelion would be quite bitter, although a nice honey mustard dressing can help with that. But I also prefer to combine the young dandelion leaves with a mix of milder greens and lettuces, as well as some other bitter greens like arugula. Dandelion is loaded with antioxidants and can be helpful to boost immunity and reduce inflammation.

Gentian: The root of this plant is notoriously bitter to the taste, but widely used in traditional medicine. People take gentian root to treat a number of digestion issues, including diarrhea, gastritis and heartburn. It’s also helpful for fever and high blood pressure.

Horehound: A close relative to mint, and very similar in appearance, this leafy herb doesn’t taste nearly as nice as its cousins. Although horehound candy, made with a fair quantity of sugar, is said to have a deliciously bittersweet flavor. Medicinal use of horehound dates back about 2000 years. Herbalists use the leaves and stems of the plant to treat a wide range of health issues, including indigestion and diarrhea, as well as respiratory issues like bronchitis and whooping cough.

Sarsaparilla: This prickly vine was long used as the key ingredient in a root beer like soft drink, but herbalists still use it today as a natural remedy. The root of the plant is useful in treating arthritis and skin conditions. For a long time sarsaparilla root was the drug of choice for syphilis.

Wormwood: In the world of herbal medicine, this is one of those plants that’s something a cure-all panacea. Wormwood is a traditional remedy for a number of digestive problems, like loss of appetite and upset stomach. They name comes from the fact that its bitter tasting bark and stems were long used for its ability to kill off intestinal worms. It’s also used to treat liver disease, depression, and infections. Some even consider it an effective aphrodisiac.

Conclusions

If you come across a bitter tasting herb in your garden or on the hiking trail, don’t automatically assume it to be a a great healing plant. It could just as easily be poisonous. But it’s true that many of the most popular herbal remedies do have a very bitter flavor. Those bitter flavors are an indication of medicinal compounds, some of which could be very beneficial for certain conditions.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bitter bunches of arugula (Unsplash)

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