FUNCTIONAL FOOD: b i t t e r s

BITTERS

The most popular foods in the marketplace tend to be either sweet or salty. Unfortunately, most of these foods are heavily processed and contain a slew of preservatives. Next time you are at the store, challenge yourself to find one naturally bitter food.

Our “bitter-phobic” culture

If you find the idea of eating bitter foods repelling, you are certainly not alone. America is still probably the most sugar-philic and bitter-phobic culture the world has ever known. Apparently, the ancient European tradition of “digestive” bitters never caught on here, nor do we embrace the Chinese ideal of including a bitter food as part of every meal. Of the three truly bitter foods Americans eat regularly – coffee, chocolate and beer – the first two are typically vigorously sweetened.

Bitter defense mechanism

The appealing logic behind this idea of eating bitters regularly is as follows: just as sweets cause blood sugar, insulin, and hunger to spike and then dip- often leading to obesity and Type 2 diabetes- research indicates bitter foods can have the opposite effect, moderating both hunger and blood sugar.

While the physiological reasons for this effect are complex, the basis behind it stems from the fact that bitterness sometimes signals toxicity. Sweet foods, on the other hand, are virtually never toxic, one reason we prefer them. But not all bitter foods are toxic; in fact, many nutrient-dense, healthful foods have a measure of bitterness, such as Brussels sprouts and leafy green vegetables.

Bitters optimize digestion

Bitter foods also stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is an important part of optimal digestion. Bile emulsifies fats and renders nutrients, especially fat-soluble ones such as vitamins A, D, E and K, more available. Another way to express this: Bitter foods challenge the liver. They make it work and help it to remain healthy, just as muscles challenged by exercise function better than ones that atrophy from underuse. A liver frequently challenged by bitters can efficiently process the occasional sweet treat, but inverting that bitter-sweet intake ratio, as far too many Americans do, leads to fatty liver disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

A whole new appreciation for bitters

Health considerations aside, gaining an appreciation for bitters can open a new world of pleasurable tastes. A meal of only sweets is like nursery rhyme — the artful addition of “counterpoint” bitters can elevate it to a symphony. At some level in this sweet-saturated culture, I venture to believe, many of us crave bitterness – perhaps this is why the three bitter foods, beer, coffee and chocolate, are often consumed to excess?

So, which bitters are best? An ideal way to boost your bitter intake is via vegetables with a bitter flavor element. Let’s all expand our bitter-flavor repertoires together!

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