By Anna Marie Beauchemin / East Bay Herbals
Photo: Anna Beauchemin / East Bay Herbals
The Bitter Flavor Long used to help support the digestive system, the bitter flavor (in both herbs and foods) has been a staple part of diets across the world for thousands of years. Thought to help stimulate the digestive juices, bitter herbs and foods are a great natural way to help support digestion. When we taste the flavor bitter it signals to our body that it's time to start eating, and our digestive organs wake up. From the HCL levels in our stomach, to the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas - the bitter flavor has a long traditional use in supporting these organs through the digestive process. In herbalism we often see the bitter flavor in herbs that help support the body's natural detoxification systems (i.e. the liver) making plants with the bitter flavor profile a widely used component in liver supportive formulas and tonics as well.
Traditional Bitter Uses
From aperitifs made with bitter cordials (think Campari and Aperol) to bitter salads and sauces made with plants such as burdock, dandelion leaf, radicchio, and bitter melon - the bitter flavor has long been used in both food and drink as part of a regular diet. In the United States we've tended to shy away from the tradition of including bitter foods and drinks into our routines, but in many places around the world eating bitter foods is part of the culture, and helps to support the digestive health that we see in so many other places, and that we're so often lacking here.
How To Incorporate More Bitters Into The Diet
Even though we may not have the same healthy relationship with bitter flavors here like we see in other parts of the world, that doesn't mean hope is lost! See below for a list of ways that I try to incorporate bitters into my life through both food and herbs:
Bitter Salad Greens: Greens like radicchio, endive, frisee, and arugula all have that bitter flavor, and make a great addition to salads which can be enjoyed before meals. Even when I am making a salad with a softer green (i.e. butter lettuce or mixed greens), I'll often throw in some radicchio or endive to help bitter-up the plate. Tart vinaigrettes, citrus juice, and mustard-based dressings compliment this bitter flavor quite well.
Bitter Drinks: An aperitif is a pre-dinner cocktail, and if you look at many of the historical ones, they often include bitter cordials or bitter tinctures as part of their composition. Though I'm not necessarily recommending a cocktail before every meal (though it does sound fun sometimes) you can make bitter beverages out of more than just booze. By adding a little bitters to sparkling water, or maybe a warm green tea, you can begin to incorporate bitter beverages into your pre-meal routine. It should be noted that many traditions don't encourage drinking large amounts of liquids before meals, but small servings in 4oz or so, can be quite effective at bringing the bitter flavor into your meals.
Bitter Herbal Blends: When I'm looking to incorporate the bitter flavor into my diet in an easy and on-the-go way (or when I want to apply them clinically) I often turn to herbal bitter blends that can be taken before eating. Bitter blends often combine a variety of flavors (sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and aromatic) to create a blend specific to a person's digestive needs or as a general bitter to aid in digestion. Bitter formulas are great because you can tweak them to suit your needs, and you only have to take a few drops before eating to support the process. In my own life, I like to combine both herbal bitters with bitter foods to help bring more bitter into my life. My favorite company for "over-the-counter" herbal bitters is Urban Moonshine based in Vermont.
Making Bitters Fun + DIY Bitters Recipe
Interested in making bitters fun? Try making our own bitters at home (start with something simple) and experiment with it in cocktails, mocktails, and more! Learn how to make a simple Chamomile bitter blend in the free download below.