Do you like brussels sprouts, chicory, endive, very dark chocolate, olives? If you don’t here’s why it is worth persevering…and why you should aim to consume bitter foods regularly.
Good for the gut
As you might expect, as this site is dedicated to gut health, bitter foods benefit your gut.
- When the taste receptors on our tongues detect bitter tastes, this triggers release of saliva and stomach acid,1 thus starting the first stages of digestion. As you’ll know if you have been reading our site, too little stomach acid can be a cause of many gut issues.
- We have bitter taste receptors throughout the gut, not just on our tongues and research is discovering that when bitter foods interact with these receptors, digestive secretions throughout the gut are stimulated, including release of bile.1 This means that the bitter foods are helping our entire digestive process.
- Many bitter foods are high in prebiotic fibres which feed our beneficial gut bacteria.1,2
Good for the whole body
Consuming bitter foods brings benefits beyond the gut too.
- Bitter foods are a big part of the Mediterranean diet, which consistently shows health benefits in research. Indeed, the antioxidants that are so high in this diet are mainly contained in the bitter foods of olives (and olive oil) and the cabbage family.3
- Bitter components of some foods have been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth, such as quercetin (found in cider apples, red onions, dark chocolate, lingonberries, black olives, capers and cloves), naringin (found in grapefruit), epicatechin (blackberries, broad beans, cider apples and green tea), and glucosinolates (that give the characteristic bitterness to Brussels sprouts, kale, watercress and wasabi).4
Bitter foods are an acquired taste
Babies naturally reject bitter food: it is in our nature to avoid bitter tastes as these can signal toxins.7 But it is fairly easy to change one’s aversion to bitterness.6 The more you are exposed to the bitter taste the less unpleasant it becomes. However, the presence of bitter foods in our diets has been reduced over the years as the food industry has sought to breed sweeter vegetables and to develop debittering processes, and this has raised questions as to whether by breeding out bitterness, the food industry is also breeding out beneficial nutrients.4
Fascinatingly, it seems that our genes, in part, determine how much we like bitter tastes and even which bitter tastes we enjoy7 some may enjoy black coffee but hate brussels sprouts for example. You may have heard of “supertasters” who have more taste buds per square centimetre of tongue than others and who, therefore, are more sensitive to the bitter tastes of brussels sprouts: a topic that is often covered during the run up to Christmas! It is not clear whether this is really the case that supertasters have more taste buds;8 it is more likely that they have a genetic variation resulting in their bitter taste receptors being more easily triggered by bitter foods.7
- Here are some easy ways to bring bitter foods into your meals.
- Include bitter leaves in your green salads: endive, chicory, rocket etc. If included alongside the sweeter leaves, and dressed with a flavoursome dressing, you will get some bitter hits alongside the more familiar tastes.
- Eat more herbs and spices: these are often slightly bitter and have numerous health benefits.
- Increase the cocoa solid percentage in your chocolate: work your way up, aiming to reach 80% cocoa solids. Two squares (about 20g) of dark chocolate can be part of a healthy diet and contains many beneficial nutrients without excessive amounts of sugar.
- Drink green tea and black coffee (without sugar).
- Enjoy grapefruit (without sugar) as a dessert. But avoid grapefruit juice as this is higher in sugar and often has been “debittered”
- Try some olives instead of crisps and other unhealthy snacks or add olives to tomato sauces.
- Don’t be afraid of brussels sprouts: try including some alongside other vegetables with your meals. The more variety of vegetables you put on your plate, the more vegetables you will likely eat (you are more likely to eat 1 portion of 5 different vegetables than 5 portions of, say, peas in one meal!).
- As you start to enjoy more bitter foods, look for heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables which have not had their bitterness bred out of them.
- McMullen MK, Whitehouse JM, Towell A. Bitters: Time for a new paradigm. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015;2015. doi:10.1155/2015/670504
- Tabrizi A, Khalili L, Homayouni-Rad A, Pourjafar H, Dehghan P, Ansari F. Prebiotics, as promising functional food to patients with psychological disorders: A review on mood disorders, sleep, and cognition. NeuroQuantology. Published online 2019. doi:10.14704/nq.2019.17.6.2189
- Cavallo C, Cicia G, del Giudice T, Sacchi R, Vecchio R. Consumers’ perceptions and preferences for bitterness in vegetable foods: The case of extra-virgin olive oil and brassicaceae—a narrative review. Nutrients. 2019;11(5). doi:10.3390/nu11051164
- Drewnowski A, Gomez-Carneros C. Bitter taste, phytonutrients, and the consumer: A review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000;72(6):1424-1435. doi:10.1093/ajcn/72.6.1424
- Lunceford BE, Kubanek J. Reception of aversive taste. In: Integrative and Comparative Biology. Vol 55. Oxford University Press; 2015:507-517. doi:10.1093/icb/icv058