Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor:
Of all the flavors to grace our palate, there is perhaps none as fascinating as that of bitterness. It is a flavor that is universally despised—used linguistically to characterize pain, harshness and things that are extremely difficult to bear. Yet, it is also a flavor used in cultures the world over to strengthen digestion, cleanse the body and build vitality—in short, considered an ingredient essential to good health. In fact, so many of the plants humans have traditionally used to tonify and heal the body are bitter tasting that we still today often rate the strength and usefulness of our medicine by how terribly bitter it tastes.
It is unfortunate, then, that our modern diet seems to be completely lacking in the wild bitter tasting plants our ancestors considered so fundamental to their health.
Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture—from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets, and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions.
NOT A MEDICINE BUT A NECESSITY
According to many, bitter herbs and foods play a helpful role in alleviating many of these conditions not so much because they act as specific remedies but because they provide components necessary to overall good health. It is very possible that the current national health crisis could be radically turned around simply by rebalancing our palate with the medicinal virtues of bitterness.
Why do so many cultures around the world revere bitter foods and herbs, not just as supplements, but as a necessary component of health? To answer this question, let’s first consider the class of plant compounds collectively known as “bitters.” These compounds—including iridoids, sesquiterpene, lactones and alkaloids—occur widely throughout the plant kingdom. They are considered secondary plant metabolites—meaning that they serve no nutritional purpose to the plant, or for that matter, to us. Rather, these compounds are used by the plant to protect itself against microbes and oxidative damage, and to deter feeding by predators (such as us).
AN EVOLVED TASTE
Researchers speculate that our bodies evolved to identify the bitter taste as an indication of toxicity, based on the natural aversion most mammals demonstrate towards bitter-tasting substances and the highly poisonous nature of some of these bitter compounds. However, this evolutionary aversion would be disadvantageous when humans were faced with bitter-tasting nutritional plant foods in times of famine, during which time periods, according to researchers, humans developed a selective tolerance for these bitter compounds.
THE BITTER REFLEX AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
When a bitter substance is recognized by bitter receptors on the tongue, a chain of neural and endocrine events begins, labeled as the “bitter reflex.” Mediated by the release of the gastric hormone gastrin, this reflex results in an overall stimulation of digestive function, which over time strengthens the structure and function of all digestive organs (liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, etc.). Let’s take a more in-depth look at this reflex.
In the stomach, the hormone gastrin has stimulated the secretion of hydrochloric acid. The acidity helps break down protein, enhances the bioavailability of many minerals (especially calcium) and destroys any harmful microbes present in your food. It’s interesting to note that more people have levels of gastric acid that are too low rather than the opposite, due to stress or simply aging.
While many people with GERD are hesitant to partake of bitters due to the potential increase in stomach acidity, the combined effect of these actions actually can help this condition by ensuring that the stomach contents are moved downward rather than allowed to reflux back up and out of the stomach. Bitters also act to heal any damage done to the gastric mucosa…”
1/2 cup lightly toasted pecans
1/2 cup whole coffee beans
1 teaspoon cocoa nibs
1/4 teaspoon dried orange peels
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cassia chips or cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon wild cherry bark
2 cups high proof bourbon
2 tablespoons sorghum syrup or molasses
Ways to Use Bitters:
Making Coffee Bitters:
Herbal Bitters: As Crucial as Salt in the Modern Kitchen: