A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine go Down!

At least when medicines were predominantly herbal in origin, that may well have been true  - herbal medicines have been known to taste somewhat bitter and not so tasty.

We associate bitter with bad experiences, and indeed, it gets quite the verbal rap – a bitter pill to swallow, the bitter truth, the bitter end…We talk of bitter winds, bitter struggles, and unpleasant events that leave us with bitter tastes in our mouths. Bitter is never associated with something pleasant and for many is probably the most unpleasant of our taste senses.

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 There is a lot more to bitter than simply bad experiences though. Do you have a friend who cannot bear the taste of cilantro? Turns out your friend may be a ‘supertaster’! Recent research suggests that a genetic variant makes some of us – dubbed ‘supertasters’ – considerably more sensitive to bitter tasting foods than others. In fact, the variation is so wide that some of us barely respond to a bitter taste when it crosses our tongues. Research into ‘supertasters’ and associated health conditions is in its infancy but there is some interesting associations beginning to emerge. For example, there is some evidence to suggest that ‘supertasters’ mount a stronger immune response to bacteria and secrete more anti-microbial agents as a result. As many as 25% of the population are ‘supertasters’ and it is more common in women than men.

Children and Vegetables

 Ask a child to taste something bitter and they immediately pull a face and spit it out. In fact, children live in a different sensory world to adults, having twice as many tastebuds, a predilection for sweet and an aversion to bitter tasting foods. By adulthood we tend to tolerate more readily the bitter tasting foods such as coffee, arugula and other greens.

 Bitter tasting foods are like the villains on our palates. Our bodies are more sensitive to bitter taste than salty, sweet, sour or umami because our tongues have more bitter receptors. But why have we evolved to have such a powerful reaction to this taste? 

Bitter taste – Friend or Foe?

 It turns out that bitter sensing conveys a protective element to our palate. Some of the most bitter tastes are in poisonous plants. Before some fruits are ripe they can taste bitter and may also even be poisonous while at the least, giving us an upset stomach. We know the ripeness of foods by their sweetness, that sweet taste being the opposite of bitter. We have evolved to trust sweet tasting offerings, been conditioned to crave it, and been sanctioned to devour as much as we can of it by our body’s clear delight as it dances on our tastebuds and sends positive messages to our brains.

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Herbal Bitters

Herbal bitters have been used across the world for thousands of years. Bitters and herbal liqueurs were a staple product of European monasteries with proprietary recipes still held as closely guarded secrets today.

Indeed, some are still sold as aperitifs such as Campari, Vermouth, Dubonnet, Absinthe, Aperol, Sambuca, Ouzo, Swedish bitters, London gin, and Angostura bitters. These are taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion.  Moreover, they would traditionally be provided as a tonic to people who were convalescing to encourage the body to eat more.

Bitter taste receptors are towards the back of the tongue. Stimulating the bitter receptors triggers a reflex response that releases digestive hormones and enzymes, as well as increases gastric acid secretion while generally preparing the digestive tract to receive foods.  

Aperitifs contain familiar herbs such as caraway, fennel, gentian, ginger, cinnamon, angelica root, cinnamon, chamomile, rosemary, and bitter orange peel.

In herbal medicine, unless specifically trying to create the bitter response for digestion, we are careful to create our blends to balance the bitter and the sweet-tasting herbs. Bitter herbs such as hops (Humulus lupulus), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis), and chicory root (Cinchorium intybus) are commonly used and we may be add lemongrass or blackberry leaf or even some spearmint to please our senses.

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Bitter-tasting Foods

Bitter-tasting foods offer some unique health benefits. These foods include bitter melon, broccoli, cranberries, citrus peel, cocoa, coffee, green tea. For example:

·    Citrus peel contains the powerful antioxidants hesperidin and naringin

·    Green tea contains something called catechins and polyphenols and these have been found to be anti-inflammatory and just one cup a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.

·    Dandelion greens are rich in the antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin both of which can protect your eyes against cataracts and macular degeneration.

Distract your tastebuds from the taste of bitter foods by adding vinegar, lemon juice (sour), salt or even oil. This sensory distraction that has your other tastebuds flooded is a culinary trick used in many cuisines.  The classic Italian dressing including olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt is a case in point. Even the red chilis that are sometimes added will create a delightful diversion.  The sweet taste of caramelised onions paired with Brussels sprouts can make Christmas dinner almost bearable for the supertasters among us.

Play with your bitter tastebuds, coax them with other flavours and expand your palate so you can enjoy the health-promoting gifts of bitter foods.

All content provided on this website is for general information purposes only and is not intended to replace medical or specialist advice.

A qualified Medical Herbalist is always your best resource for information related to herbal medicines.

Registered Dietitians are a reliable and trusted resource for nutrition related information, always up to date and always ready to work with you to realise your goals.

Jill Burns