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Bitter foods – The taste of good health

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Jun 24, 2023

Instead of scrunching up your nose at bitter foods – embrace them!

 

Many people do not enjoy the taste of bitter foods, preferring sweet, salty, or sour flavors instead. However, those who have avoided bitter-tasting foods may miss vital nutrients and compounds essential for gut and digestive health and significant bone, brain, and liver functioning benefits.

Why do some foods taste bitter?

Who remembers in 1990 when then-President George H.W. Bush made headlines that became a national debate all because he stated he didn’t like the taste of broccoli? Many Americans agreed with him. However, many other Americans, who loved broccoli, hotly disagreed.

Regardless of the former president’s dislike of broccoli, have you ever wondered how we taste food and detect the five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory? Our taste buds are connected to nerve fibers that receive taste sensations, allowing us to distinguish these flavors. In addition, our sense of smell plays a crucial role in identifying flavors within foods by sending taste sensations to the brain.

Among the five taste sensations, bitterness is the most sensitive. Many individuals perceive bitterness as sharp, disagreeable, or unpleasant. Although sour foods are sometimes confused with bitterness, sourness indicates a food’s acidity. Our genetics influence our capacity to taste bitterness, making some individuals more susceptible to this flavor than others.

Some commonly known foods that taste bitter are grapefruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, dandelion greens, watercress, spinach, coffee, unsweetened cocoa, and hops, a green cone-shaped flower, the source of bitterness, aroma, and flavor in beer. There are even bitter fruits that, include cranberries, oranges, lemons, and limes.

Why you should be eating more bitter foods

Here’s an un-bitter truth about bitter foods: Bitter-tasting foods have numerous health benefits you want to take advantage of. Here’s a brief look at reasons why to add bitter foods to your plate:

  • Supports a healthy gut microbiome and digestive health

Did you know that consuming bitter foods can help stimulate your digestive system? These foods trigger increased saliva and stomach acids necessary for proper food absorption. As a result, your body produces more stomach acid and digestive enzymes, further aiding the absorption process. In addition, bitter foods are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber, which act as prebiotics that promotes healthy gut bacteria growth.

  • Supports brain health

Many people love semi-sweet chocolate bars, but it’s important to note that bitter cacao is much richer in health benefits for your brain. This superfood is packed with crucial nutrients like iron, zinc, potassium, and magnesium and is also incredibly high in flavonoids. These powerful polyphenols enhance blood flow to the brain and can even help block beta-amyloid plaque buildup, a standard marker of Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Supports liver health

Kale, spinach, and arugula are among the most commonly preferred bitter vegetables in salads. These greens are rich in vitamins A, C, and K and calcium, potassium, copper, and manganese. However, kale is particularly beneficial for liver health due to the presence of glucosinolates, which are phytochemicals capable of detoxifying the liver.

  • Supports a healthy body weight

Bitter foods have the added benefit of being lower in calories than other foods. They also aid in suppressing the craving for sweet foods, which aids in controlling one’s appetite and maintaining a healthy weight.

Research published in the scientific journal, Appetite, suggests that individuals who do not like bitter foods are more prone to replacing them with sugary or salty processed foods, which may contribute to weight gain. Another study in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, also concluded that taste plays an important role in food choice and individual taste preferences that strongly influences why some people select and consume unhealthy foods. Nutrient poor foods are more likely to taste sweet, salty, or with a fatty mouthfeel, while the taste profiles of nutrient rich foods are more diverse. This may explain why weight gain may depend on a person’s taste preferences that ultimately affect their choosing of either nutrient poor or nutrient rich foods.

How to add in bitter-tasting foods

In childhood, a lot of people tend to dislike bitter foods. But, both adults and kids can learn to appreciate this flavor by gradually introducing small amounts of bitter-tasting foods into their meals. Here are some clever and subtle ways to do it:

  • Toss a handful of bitter greens into a salad
  • Pair bitter foods with other flavors. For instance, serve roasted Brussels sprouts with sweet or tart apple slices
  • If you add spoonfuls of sugar to your coffee or tea, try cutting back on the amount of sweetener to build up a bitter tolerance
  • Slowly add in small amounts of dark chocolate of at least 70% cacao content, easing yourself into the sophisticated and mouthwatering world of bitter
  • Toss in dried cranberries to summer salads or in a smoothie or parfait
  • Add in fresh squeezes of lemon or lime to your water

 

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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