WHAT IS IT?
Generally, humans can detect five basic flavors; sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory, characteristic of broths and cooked meats).
Bitter is the most sensitive of all tastes. Bitterness has an excitable quality that some people might describe as disagreeable or harsh. The very word “bitter” has become associated in our language with anger, resentment, and pain.
Bitter is a complex flavor that does more than cause lips to pucker and heads to shake. It is known for stimulating the senses and engaging the digestive system. Foods with a bitter quality have long been valued for their unique ability to cleanse the body and build a sense of well being and vitality.
Cultures worldwide have long revered bitter foods as an essential part of a regular healthy diet. Large numbers of roots, barks, flowers and herbs of the wild plant kingdom are bursting with complex bitter flavor. When consumed, such plants naturally stimulate the production of saliva, gastric juices and bile. They balance the appetite and prime our digestion.
While bitter botanicals were common to our ancestors, such richly flavored plant foods have been replaced by seemingly endless selections of sweetened and salted snacks.
MODERN USE OF BITTERS
Once very common, bitter foods have become difficult to find in the modern marketplace. Our fruit and vegetable varieties have been intentionally bred to minimize bitterness and enhance sweetness and bright color. While these traits make veggie shopping more appealing, they also limit phytonutrient, antioxidant and flavonoid variety in our foods. Today, true bitter flavor is enjoyed in just a few common items such as greens (dandelion , arugula), coffee, hops, olives, and dark chocolate.
Including bitter foods in the diet isn’t simply a matter of reviving tradition or taste. Bitter foods also have a rich history in the healing arts. From the wine infused herbal concoctions used by Ancient Egyptians to the 16th century prescriptions of famous physician Paracelsus (15th century Switzerland), elixirs brewed from bitter herbs have been treasured as remedies. Studies confirm that getting an adequate amount bitter flavor is important for digestive balance and linked with many related health benefits.
To make up for the general deficit of bitter flavors some health practitioners recommend using herbal tonics or tinctures. Common botanicals that have a natural bitter flavor include gentian, cascarilla, cassia, orange peel and cinchona bark. Keeping a bottle of bitters in the house is an excellent idea. Just a few drops can almost immediately settle a queasy stomach. A German physician first compounded Angostura Bitters (primarily gentian) in Venezuela in 1824.
As peculiar as it might seem, the most common place to purchase a 19th century remedy today is in a liquor store and not a pharmacy. Bitters are still abundant but they are mostly used to flavor cocktails and mixed drinks, but a couple drops mixed with a small amount of water will often soothe a troubled stomach.
The craving for sugary snacks or starchy salty snack foods can be quenched with a drop of bitter taste on the tongue. Bitters can relieve gas and bloating, help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, support the liver and gallbladder, relieve heartburn and indigestion, help to regulate fat metabolism, and can improve complexion by improving digestion.
While Angostura is the most common brand, there are several others in the stores and online. A recent search Amazon for “bitters” yielded 372 results in the Grocery & Gourmet Food section. That should be enough to meet any need. The majority of the brands are extracted using alcohol, but if you have an objection to consuming any alcohol there are many that aren’t. Mathematically, though, five drops of a 44% alcohol mixture delivers about the same amount of alcohol that’s in one tablespoon of wine.
There’s nothing to fear and it certainly seems worth the effort to try bitters – especially if the first thought is to use a modern drug rather than a time-tested remedy. What is there to lose?