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Wild about Bitters

  • April 5th, 2012

Of all the flavors, we are most familiar with sweet and salty. These are the tastes we tend to gravitate towards; however, this limited palate prevents us from experiencing the benefits of the healing properties of spicy/pungent, sour and bitter foods.

So you may be asking yourself, “Kim, what the heck is a bitter food and why should I give a hoot?”

Well, bitters are actually a group of plant compounds that are used by the plant to protect itself against pathogens, predators and oxidative damage. In nature, some bitter compounds are poisonous. Yet many animals, including us, have learned over time to forage for mildly bitter plants and eat them in small amounts, thus building up an immunity to protect them from the highly bitter plants. Plus, if the bitter compounds protect the plant, perhaps they will also protect us.

Now you may be scratching your head and wondering how this benefits you. It turns out that bitters have a variety of health benefits.

Bitters stimulate your digestive system which strengthens your liver, stomach, gall bladder, pancreas and small and large intestines. Many health conditions that we experience today, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, IBS and indigestion may be due to/exacerbated by a lack of bitter foods in our diets.

Bitters increase healthy bile flow which helps your liver get rid of toxins. Bile is secreted into the intestines where it can be used to emulsify fats, alkalize the environment for carbohydrate digesting enzymes and help eliminate waste products. Bile also helps the body use important fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Bitters can be very helpful for people with hepatitis and other compromised livers conditions.

Bitters are anti-inflammatory! They help to ensure the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach which ensures good protein digestion. Often times, people with indigestion think they have too much acid in the stomach when in reality they don’t have enough hydrochloric acid (stomach pH is too high) to digest protein effectively. Undigested proteins putrefy in the gut and can cause inflammation of the bowels which leads to leaky gut syndrome. Some symptoms of leaky gut syndrome include: food allergies, eczema, skin rashes and other skin disorders, headaches, migraines, joint pain, chronic fatigue and heartburn.

Bitters help to ensure that the pancreas is secreting the appropriate amount of enzymes to break down foods which prevents putrefaction and inflammation of the gut. This means less gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. When your gut lining is healthy, you will be healthy, too, as a healthy gut is strongly correlated with a healthy immune system.

Bitters also help stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin and glucagon, two hormones that are important to stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Bitters have anti-carciongenic and antioxidant powers. Here is an article that references some of the specific bitter compounds and their benefits.

You’re convinced that you need more bitters in your diet, but what are they and how do you get them?

Sweedish Bitters

There are a variety of ways to incorporate bitters into your diet. The most common way is to enjoy a variety of wild and cultivated bitter greens such as dandelion, chicory, arugula, radicchio, escarole, turnip greens, mustard greens, watercress and endive. These greens can be used raw in salads, braised with garlic and olive oil or blended in a soup.

Enjoying a bitter cocktail before a meal is another way to incorporate bitters into your diet. Traditionally, concoctions using Angostura bitters, Amer Picon, Campari, Cynar, Chartreuse, Dubonnet, Fernet Branca, Byrrh, Punt è Mes, Suze, Jägermeister, and Peychaud’s or Fee Brothers bitters were considered health tonics. If you do enjoy a cocktail on occasion, consider a bitter beverage before your eat or add a few drops of a bitters formula to your water.

You can also get your bitters through teas such as dandelion root, milk thistle, red clover, and nettles. Alvita has a great line of herbal teas. In addition bitter, unsweetened chocolate and even certain wines offer some bitter benefits. Finally, you may even consider a Swedish Bitter formula from Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm or Nature Works. Urban Moonshine makes some fantastic travel bitters sprays.

So the next time you have that sweet or salty craving, reach for something bitter instead. Your body will thank you.

One Response to “Wild about Bitters”

  1. Wavatar

    September 06, 2013 at 4:46 pm, Nouran said:

    Great drink!!! Made it for the office for Drink Fridays. Couldn’t find grapefrupt bitters, used tequila silver instead of vodka, and used agave nectar instead of honey. Great recipe! Everyone in the office enjoyed it.


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