Bitterness is a taste most of us try to avoid. Expressions such as “bitter enemies” and “a bitter pill to swallow ” show how averse we are to this flavor. We greatly prefer the other three primary flavors – nearly everything Americans eat is a combination of sweet, salty, and sour. These are sometimes accented with spiciness or “piquancy” and the rich quality known as umami. (Umami is a harder taste experience to describe, but it’s often translated as a “savory” or mushroomy quality, and it is the specific enhancement imparted by MSG.)
Perhaps we dislike bitterness in part because it’s the flavor our taste buds are most sensitive to. Compared to our perception of saltiness, sweetness, and sourness, we can pick up an infinitesimal degree of bitterness in food or drink. This is probably a useful adaptation, since many poisons are bitter. But many medicines are also bitter, and there are certain medicinal qualities that many bitter substances have in common. I believe that consuming moderate amounts of bitter foods is a healthy thing. It also provides a vital balance to our relative overconsumption of the other flavors.
In the ancient healing systems of China and India the therapeutic properties of foods and herbs are thought to derive largely from the flavors they possess. The flavors themselves are considered to be energetic characteristics that affect the body far beyond our perception of them at the tongue. Textbooks of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda will often state that a certain herb has a certain therapeutic action because it has a certain flavor and an affinity for a certain part of the body.
Sweetness, for instance, is seen in TCM as having a nourishing and consolidating effect on our energy. This is why so many comfort foods are sweet, and most naturally sweet foods (like rice and bananas) tend to be easy on the digestion. But by the same token, too much consolidation can have a clogging effect. This makes us pack on the pounds – especially around our bellies – when we eat too much sugar, and it also makes us feel ill the day after Halloween.
Spiciness or pungency, by comparison, has an opening or expansive energy. It promotes movement, gets our blood flowing, warms us up. And it may even open our pores and sinuses – causing us to sweat and feel clearer in the head. Sourness has a moistening and astringent effect. This is why sour drinks often seem even more thirst quenching than water alone.
Bitterness has a descending or draining energy. Bitter herbs often help drain and clear excesses from our system. Many bitter herbs are detoxifying, and they often promote urination or bowel movement. Bitter herbs frequently act on the liver and gallbladder to promote bile production and secretion. Bile is essential for the digestion of fats, including the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Bile also stimulates the bowels and kills some bacteria that may be present in our food. These effects are especially useful after overconsumption of rich foods.
The stomach is understood in Chinese medicine as having a downward directionality. That is, it receives food from the esophagus above, and, after working on it with its gastric juices, should send it down to the intestines. When the stomach isn’t functioning properly, because of illness, overeating, stress, food sensitivity, or eating too fast, the stomach’s contents may fail to descend, or may even go upward instead. When it goes up, it’s called “stomach Qi [energy] counter-flow” or “stomach Qi rebellion.” Examples are acid reflux (heartburn), belching, nausea and vomiting, bloating, hiccups, dizziness, and just plain feeling yucky in the middle and upper body. Because of their descending and draining qualities and their action on bile production/secretion, bitter foods and herbs are often very helpful for these conditions.
There is just a small handful of bitter things an American is likely to encounter. Two of the most common are beer (in which the bitterness comes from hops flowers, which are used to offset the otherwise overly sweet taste of grain malt) and coffee (which we usually de-bitter by adding milk and/or sugar). Unfortunately, these are not the healthiest of bitter medicines, though I do believe they can have some benefits. Nearly all leafy greens have some degree of bitterness, especially arugula, endive (escarole), chicory, and young dandelion greens. These are excellent, though fairly mild, bitter medicines. Coffee (usually as espresso) and salad are often consumed after meals in Europe to stimulate digestion.
Stronger bitter herbs are usually encountered only in preparations made specifically to highlight their bitterness. These are used in alcoholic beverages and as after-meal digestifs. Gentian root is the classic bitter herb. It is used to produce Angostura bitters, originally prescribed for sea sickness and stomach problems, and now an ingredient in several mixed drinks. Herbalists of the European and American naturopathic traditions consider gentian and other bitter herbs to have the ability not just to stimulate gastric activity, but to improve the tone and function of the digestive system.
Rudolf Weiss, a famous German doctor and pioneer in herbal medicine, said of gentian, “A pure bitter (the bitter taste is detectable even at a dilution of 1 part in 20,000). Stimulates gastric secretions and motility and improves tone. It is active as soon as it is absorbed through the mouth’s mucus membranes.” The old school American herbalist, John Christopher, said gentian is “one of the most valuable bitter tonics and best strengtheners of the human system.” He called its effect “invigorating.” When used to invigorate the digestive system (as opposed to promoting digestion after a big meal), a squirt of gentian tincture is typically taken in water 20 to 60 minutes before eating.
Quinine, which comes from cinchona bark (a South American tree), is famous as the first effective treatment for malaria. It’s intensely bitter and it shares some medicinal properties with gentian and other bitters. The bitterness of quinine is the standard to which all other bitter substances are compared.
Quinine is most often encountered in tonic water, which goes very well with a wedge of lime and some good gin. Cinchona (AKA Peruvian bark) has attracted some attention recently because it’s the distant source of the contentious COVID treatment hydroxychloroquine. However, this herb and its derivatives all possess a certain degree of toxicity. The amount of quinine in tonic water is strictly regulated for this reason, and there have been a few unfortunate deaths from over-zealous users of the related substance chloroquine.
Citrus peel is a wonderful bitter agent. It can be used fresh, extracted in alcohol, or dried and aged and taken as a powder or tea. Fruity and floral tones make it more interesting and less of a pure bitter than gentian or quinine. Any citrus peel can be used. Common fruits used for bitters include lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, bitter orange, and grapefruit. A delicious example is the famous Italian limoncello, a liqueur made from Sorrento lemon peel (or whole lemons).
Other common bitters include barberry root bark, goldenseal root, rhubarb root, artichoke leaf, cascarilla bark, wormwood leaf, yarrow flowers, and more. Over 20 years ago, when I was a novice herbalist, I had a friend who had gradually developed nausea, bloating, and a poor appetite. Most foods made her feel worse. At the time, I was focused on barberry and suggested that she might try some. I didn’t speak to her for a while after that, but a few months later she reported, “I love barberry! It fixed me!” She had been taking it as a tea twice a day and not only were her digestive symptoms gone, she also felt strong and vital in way she hadn’t experienced since childhood.
A wide range of aromatic herbs may be combined with bitters to enhance their effect when used to soothe the digestive tract. Mint, anise, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, ginger, and thyme are some common ones. These bitters and aromatics are available in a vast array of commercial preparations, most of which originate in Europe. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in bitters in the United States, with boutique manufacturers popping up alongside thriving foodie cultures.
Consider broadening your taste horizons, or at least offsetting your sweet, sour, and salty consumption with a bit of bitter. See if you feel lighter than usual after dinner if you have something bitter. Even if your taste buds don’t love it, your body might.
Share with us about your experience with bitter foods and herbs in the comments section.