Of the 5 tastes on the tongue, sweet, salty, sour, umami and bitter, bitter is the taste we don’t relish and crave. Bitter foods require more than a nudge to eat and enjoy. Is there more to this preference than meets the eye? And why are bitter foods seen as better for us than the sweet stuff?

Chocolate beans
Those who have a sweet tooth love chocolate, but it starts life as a bitter-tasting bean.

Taste is an individual part of our identity. Our food loves and choices reflect who we are personally as well as physically. Together with this, science is proving that our tastes are predetermined by our genes. Science suggests that our rejection of bitter tastes is linked to our survival. The hunter-gatherers of the past learned to avoid bitter tastes. This is in part of the survival of plants as well as our species. Our sweet preferences begin at birth with our first gulps of milk and there’s even evidence in the animal kingdom where apes and oysters also reject bitter foods[1].

Despite our avoidance of bitter-tasting foods, scientific research suggests that bitter foods are important to our health. Bitter foods range from coffee and chocolate to grapefruit and gourds. Alcohol and citrus fruits are also included in this category. However, our bitter tastes have been subdued over the years as a result of the food industry’s interference with selective breeding and debittering processes[2]. Although this improves the taste of bitter foods, more research needs to be conducted to see if this affects the foods overall nutrient content.

Line up of citrus fruits
Citrus fruits are generally bitter foods we can enjoy easily.

Bittersweet Research

Growth in wisdom may be exactly measured by a decrease in bitterness.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Over the past few years, a variety of interesting research has been conducted into bitter-tasting foods and how their flavours are processed in our bodies. One study in the USA suggests that our genes determine how much we can enjoy bitter tastes[3]. According to this study, there are many variables inside the body that affect our enjoyment of these foods. What has been dubbed as taste receptors or TAS2Rs process the flavours of foods and determine our reactions to these flavours. It also regulates our tolerance for bitterness. For instance, you may enjoy the taste black coffee but can’t stand grapefruit[3].

Sea of coffee beans with a cup of black coffee.
We’ve only just become a nation of artisan coffee drinkers. However, milky coffee rates higher because it depletes coffee’s bitter taste.

Another case looks at how we can condition our taste buds to accept bitter flavours by looking at our saliva. Our saliva plays a big part in our taste sensations. The study noticed the changes in the saliva during a 6-week study of 64 participants who consumed milk with unsweetened cocoa powder, chocolate being one of the world’s most bitter foods[4]. Over the 6 weeks, the proteins in the saliva altered to change the bitter taste of the milk[4]. Curiously, if the intake of these bitter foods stopped the saliva would go back to how they were before[4].

Tongue sticking out
Our taste buds are influence by our heritage, genes, taste receptors and saliva.

Other research further puts us off eating bitter foods, studies like one conducted by the University of Innsbruck in Austria suggest that a person with a preference for bitter foods is more likely to have bitter traits[1] such as narcissism and psychopathy. Although the research hasn’t been conducted on a grand scale, on just 1,000 individuals, it suggests that there may be a correlation between bitter preferences and darker personality traits. This does not necessarily mean that those who do like bitter foods are criminals or bad people. This research has been widely contested, although it is interesting.

Bitter Foods to Eat to Cleanse

Bitter food studies show that people who have a higher tolerance for and enjoy bitter foods eat on average 25% more vegetables than those who do not enjoy bitter flavours[5]. Our food preferences and cravings are based a lot on imbalances within the body. Craving bitter foods, especially after eating a heavy, rich diet over the winter, shows that our bodies are ready to detox, much like a spring clean in the home.

Punnets of gooseberries
Naturally bitter foods such as gooseberries are cooked with sugar.

Consuming bitter foods regularly is proven to enhance our chances to enjoy and crave these foodstuffs[4]. Bitter foods help to regulate our digestive and endocrine systems. The main detoxer in our body is the liver. The liver works alongside the gall bladder and pancreas to remove heavy metals, drugs and to improve digestion in the body. This is integral to our wellbeing for hormonal balance and bowel regularity[4].

Bitter foods naturally contain high amounts of phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are a way for plants to protect themselves from predators, which is perhaps why these bitter flavours exist. Although these phytonutrients can leave a bad taste in our mouths, they are also responsible for its high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which is why these foods are always found at the top of healthy foods to eat lists. Research has shown that bitter foods can stop cells dying and inhibit the growth of cancer cells too[6]

Best Bitter Foods

They shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
Exodus 12:8

Bitter Greens

Possibly the best form of bitter food consumption. Eating leaves such as radicchio and endive are ideal. Cruciferous green like cabbage, mustard greens and kale are also great bitter green foods. Gently steaming these vegetables allows their nutrient content to stay intact. Ask your greengrocer what bitter greens are in season and that are grown locally. As the seasons start to change make the most of cabbages and kale before the warmer weather comes. Box schemes such as Hexhamshire Organics offer a range of organic vegetables that are ideal steamed.

Savoy cabbage
Cruciferous, green veg such as Savoy cabbage can be fermented to increase their digestive qualities.

Hot Drinks

Herbal teas such as nettle and fennel are already known for their digestive qualities. Their naturally bitter flavours can help to clear toxins in the digestive system. Nettle tea, in particular, has diuretic properties to help the kidneys eliminate waste. Please note, that you shouldn’t drink too much nettle or fennel tea because of its diuretic properties.

Drinking hot water in the morning is a great way to wake up the body. Additions such as fresh ginger, lemon or honey increase its antioxidant quality. Drinking just hot water helps to flush the system after a nights regeneration.

Making herbal drinks
Warm water with lemon, ginger, honey or herbs are a regenerative health tonic.

Add Chain Bridge Honey Farm honey to your morning warm water tonic. Check out Bari Tea‘s range of tea ranging from green tea, black tea, white tea and tisanes. Black, white and green tea are all naturally bitter tasting and are therefore recommended to drink in small quantities, around 2 -3 cups a day.

Make Bone Broth

Supplement your bitter detox with a bone broth. A bone broth can be made with any animal bones which is regarded as a medicinal tool. It is suitable for drinking alone or in soups and casseroles. Enjoy with your steamed bitter greens. You can ask for bones from your local butchers or ask for bones with your weekly grocery box from places such as G & S Organics which deliver across Northumberland.

Eat More Herbs & Spices

Dandelion leaves are regularly touted for their health properties and have started appearing in many salad dishes and soups across food trends on media platforms such as Instagram. Other bitters herbs to include in your diet are horseradish, parsley and coriander seeds which can be utilised in a number of ways including making tisanes, adding to soups and salads. Bitter herbs are believed to prevent and help with digestive ailments and blood circulation around the organs in the abdomen[7].

Use dandelion leaves to create teas or salads to get the most out of these bitter greens.

Take the Bitter as Sweet

Learn to love bitter foods. These foods are essential to our well-being and intake of a variety of bitter foods can help our bodily functions and systems. Discovering locally-grown bitter foods allows us to be more responsible in our choices as well as our awareness of what we are putting into our bodies.

If after a heavy food intake during the winter months you are ready for a lighter approach to your diet, perhaps investing time in creating a meal plan with bitter foods will help you keep healthy and happy throughout Spring and Summer until we are ready for comforting food again.

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