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?
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.
I love gardening, but sometimes your best intentions can go awry. Last fall, I planted greens in my cold frame, but then I kind of…sort of…very much…completely forgot about them over the Holidays. Needless to say, the only drought survivors were a row of mache and a mess of chickweed. Knowing that chickweed (Stellaria media) is chock full of nutrients such as B6, B12, C, D, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, and silica, I knew that I had to do something with it. So I made a few nutrient recipes that I will share with you today!
Sauteed Chickweed & Cabbage
- 3 TBSP olive oil
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- tsp cayenne pepper
- 6 garlic cloves
- several handfuls of chickweed, chopped
- 2 cups cabbage, chopped
- dash of sea salt and pepper
- 1 tsp of cumin seeds
I sautéed the cabbage and chickweed in a little water for about 10 minutes or until tender and then added the rest of the ingredients and mixed. Joe prepared a side of venison to go along with our “wild” evening, and it was pretty darn tasty except that the chickweed was a little chewy. I should have removed the stems or used “younger” chickweed. Live and learn! The beauty of this dish is that you can use a variety of seasoning combinations. Think about how you like to prepare spinach and substitute chickweed. “Wildman” Steve Brill uses cumin, chiles, Brewer’s yeast and ground cloves in his “Chickweed Delight” recipe. I’ll have to try that next!
My next chickweed experiment this week was delicious! It was inspired by “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Chickweed Bean Spread.
- 2 cups soaked and cooked aduki beans
- 2 TBSP coconut vinegar
- 4 TBSP olive oil
- 2 tsp dried tarragon
- 2 tsp Lydia’s Organic Seasoning (a must have for your pantry!)
- 2 shallots
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup chickweed leaves
- small handful of chives
- ¼ cup of red miso
- juice of 1 lime
- sea salt and pepper to taste
I added the lime juice, miso, olive oil, shallot, garlic and seasonings to the food processor and pulsed for a bit. Then I added the aduki beans and processed for a minute or two. After the mixture became smooth, I added the chickweed and chives. Voila!
Unfortunately, according to my Facebook Friends, the picture of the pâté looks more like poop; however, I thought that was appropriate since chickweed is full of fiber which is helpful to elimination. 🙂
This morning, while writing this post, I sipped on fresh chickweed tea. While it tasted refreshing on its own, I added a lavender-lemon-mint tea for some extra kick. Just pour boiling water over a ¼ to ½ cup chickweed, cover and let steep for about 15 minutes. Because it’s so nutrient rich, this would be a wonderful concoction to accompany and detoxification program. In particular, it supports the kidneys. You could add other herbs and drink hot or pour over some ice for a truly refreshing beverage.