What are bitters? And why you need more of these in your daily diet

Written by Dr. Jennifer Stagg

The only exposure you may have had previously to the term ‘bitters’ is as a cocktail ingredient. Those are indeed in the category of bitters as they are an alcoholic preparation infused with botanical ingredients to intentionally impart a bitter flavor to drinks.

Beyond alcoholic beverages, bitters are widely distributed in many other foods. Bitters are a category of biological compounds for which the tongue happens to have specialized taste receptors which register bitter taste in the brain. It was thought that bitter taste was simply an evolutionary protective mechanism to allow us to identify poisonous compounds (which are often bitter) in plants that were gathered or food that had spoiled.

However, plants that contain these unique compounds can enhance our overall health. There are broad reaching effects of bitters on the human body. We now know that there at least fifty different bitter taste receptors throughout the body that not only participate in our sensory system, but also play extremely important roles in digestion and metabolism. These bitter taste receptors can sense literally thousands of different bitter compounds.

Bitter taste receptors that bind bioactive compounds found in plants can have epigenetic effects, ultimately activating our DNA to help express optimal health potential. These bitter phytochemicals are known to play a role in prevention of a number of chronic disease including diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Familiar examples of foods that contain bitters include kale, green tea and lemons.

Well established, is the fact that dietary bitter compounds activating these receptors is important for overall digestive function, lowering overall food intake and limiting blood sugar spikes after eating. The great news about bitters is that they can help regulate appetite, improve the digestive process, help with weight loss and crush cravings for sweets. They also play a role in such diverse activities as immune health, blood pressure regulation, thyroid function and even brain health.

Bitters are particularly important when it comes to inflammation, which is an underlying factor in most chronic disease,  and especially in our pandemic era with a virus that can severely impact people with obesity and inflammation. Bitter dietary compounds not only act as direct antioxidants, but they also have the ability to induce our built-in (endogenous) antioxidant system and reduce inflammatory mediators.

So next time you eat, make sure to add some bitters to your plate and cup. Some of my favorite bitters include:

  • arugula
  • artichokes
  • black beans
  • chai tea
  • dark chocolate
  • grapefruit
  • onions and garlic

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