Bitters are making a big come back in the craft beverage industry. Pretty bottles line the shelves of modern bars. This trend might be new in the US, but bitter extracts are still widely consumed around the world as “digestifs.” In fact, throughout history herbalists have focused on the importance of digestion for overall health. Bitters play a positive role in our digestive health.
What are bitters?
Many of our leafy green vegetables and herbals have a flavor profile known as “bitter.” Bitter has gotten a bad rap. Bitter foods have largely been replaced by sweet, salty, and fatty foods in the typical American diet. A bitter taste in your mouth is even a metaphor for a bad impression. Bitter is bad to many minds.
I am here to tell you otherwise… bitter is beautiful!
In fact, unsweetened chocolate and coffee are popular bitters. Allowing the bitter flavors to shine through by not over sweetening your chocolate and coffee turns out to be a great idea. Any time you taste something bitter an amazing thing happens: your digestive system is triggered to turn on. Think about a good strong cup of coffee that’s bitter… a sure laxative for many of us.
Whenever your tongue tastes a bitter substance, digestive juices (enzymes in particular) are released throughout the entire digestive system. Virtually every digestive action is triggered. Have you ever noticed an increase in salivation when you eat something bitter like radicchio in your salad?
The response from bitters starts when our bitter taste receptor cells (called T2Rs) are activated by the bitter taste. This taste first triggers amylase, a digestive enzyme found in the mouth (thus the salivation). The bitter response goes on to involve every part of the digestive system, including the release of pancreatic and liver enzymes.
These T2R taste receptor cellss are found all throughout the body and they trigger different actions based on where they are. T2Rs are even found in the heart and lungs. Research on T2R cells is continuing to unfold and is a topic I will continue to watch!
For more info on the science behind bitters, check out this great article from a wonderful bitters company, Urban Moonshine:
You’ll find more in-depth information about T2Rs toward the end of the article.
And for herb nerds like me… you can search the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database for journal articles related to bitters https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/
Try various searches like "bitter and digestion" for a rabbit hole of articles on published research about bitters. By the way, Ginger is one of the more researched natural digestive aids and does have some bitter components. Be sure to look for studies on Ginger if you are interested in this deep dive.
While some of this scientific insight is new, the use of bitters throughout history indicates a long-known effect on digestion. The entire digestive system is put on alert. The flavor screams “get ready to digest!” A little bitter in your food will challenge your digestion in a way that makes it stronger. I love the saying that bitters are like a gym for your digestion.
In talking with large numbers of folks out in health food stores over the past years, I have learned that many suffer from simple “sluggish digestion.” Is this you?
Do you feel a lot of gas after eating? Does eating cause discomfort? Do you have constipation? Bitters and wild greens could be a great way to improve your digestive health.
Our ancestors consumed a lot of wild foods which were loaded with bitter compounds. As the industrial age came on, families still foraged for wild foods to complement what they preserved from the garden and bought or traded in town.
Modern culture has kept up with at least one bitter tradition: salad.
Salads are traditionally eaten at the beginning of a meal thanks to this digestive jumpstart from bitter greens. Our salads used to include many more bitter greens! Generations past would also have eaten more bitter heirloom vegetables, not the ones hybridized to remove bitterness as the varieties we tend have today.
So you see? No need to fear bitter any longer! You can learn to welcome the bitter taste. The flavor really does grow on you.
As if all this isn’t enough, bitters can even help you move off the sugar cravings and feel more satiated after eating.
There are bitter foods you can find in most larger grocery stores
This includes many of the gourmet greens like radicchio, endive, escarole, mustard greens and you may even find dandelion greens. Many herbs (like parsley) are mildly bitter. These are all good to add to a salad, sauté or soup. (You may prefer to cook the mustard greens unless they are quite young.)
In addition to nutrition, bitter greens tend to be colorful and they add a distinct depth to the flavor profile of a meal… which is why chefs today are often adding bitter components to their dishes.
The modern Chef represents another growing group of bitter enthusiasts. A skilled Chef will bring balance of flavors to a plate including all 5 flavors:
- Umami (formerly known as savory)
Don’t be afraid to add a little radicchio to your chicken sauté or your favorite soup! You can find a number of wonderful recipes for bitter ingredients in Michelle McKenzie’s fabulous cookbook Dandelion and Quince.
One easy and fun way to introduce bitters each day is to purchase a Bitter Extract such as the ones made by Urban Moonshine.
Ideas for using bitters:
- Simply add to sparkling water for a non-alcoholic and low-calorie alternative to sugary drinks
- Add a little vodka or gin for a fun adult drink with nice flavor balance and a digestive boost.
- Add a dash of elderberry syrup or a sprig of rosemary for a lovely modern beverage that is beneficial for digestion, heart, and cognition.
No wonder bitters are taking hold in the craft beverage industry!
Bitters are an ole-timey, traditional way to improve your health! Start adding bitters a little at a time and you’ll find the taste grows on you.
At first, it can be a downright offense to the senses if you go straight for a strong bitter on its own. I recommend you start with a small amount of bitter in something delicious like your salad or stir-fry. Or try a small amount of extract in water or sparkling water. Stick with it! After a couple of weeks of eating something bitter every day, you may even find yourself craving those bitter flavors in your food.
For more information on foraging for your own wild bitter foods, see our article Free Food?
NOTE: all plants have the potential for causing a food sensitivity or allergic reaction in rare individuals. Any time you try a new food or plant, take only a small amount and wait some time to ensure you will not be that rare person!
Some folks may find bitters are too strong for sensitive digestion or that ginger is too “hot and spicy” for their constitution. If you tend to be sensitive to things, dose small accordingly be sure to do the trial with a very small amount.
If you like a lot of spice like me, or if you have a lot of digestive troubles, you may want to dose up (after you’ve checked for compatibility of course).
It's always ideal to start small and work up to a larger dose. Pay attention to the feedback you get and allow your body to help determine the best dose for you.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Always check with your physician for contraindications if you are taking any medications.