Yesterday I received an email from a reader asking about bitter herbs and vegetables to help liver function. Instead of just sending her a private answer I thought I would elaborate here, for everyone.
The human tongue has thousands of taste receptors which can distinguish between four different tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Bitter tastes are often associated with unpleasant and potentially toxic substances but there are many bitter foods that are actually very good for us. Our diets used to be rich in bitter foods, the Chinese are one culture that still make sure there are bitter components in their daily diet.
So what are bitter foods and why are they important for good health?
The bitter flavour in some herbs and vegetables is caused by antioxidant phytonutrients such as glucopyranosides, flavonoids and polyphenols. Tastes can vary from mildly bitter like Chamomile to mind numbingly bitter like Rue. When bitter taste is detected by our taste buds signals are sent to the brain which trigger a whole range of effects.
- Gastric juices are stimulated to aid good digestion
- Aids in the breaking down of fatty foods.
- Reduced bloating and gas in intestines.
- The increased flow of gastric juices stimulates appetite.
- Increased bile production and release which tones and strengthens the liver.
- Relaxing muscle spasms in the gut.
Many of our vegetables have had their bitter component bred out of them which means that our modern palate is not used to the strong flavour of bitter ingredients anymore. Since it is such an important part of our health it might be an idea to gradually introduce more bitter ingredients into your daily diet.
Why not add some endive, chicory, romaine, horseradish or wild greens such as dandelion, wintercress and mustard greens to salads and soups. Younger leaves and shoots are milder in their bitterness than older parts of the plant. And if the strong bitter taste gets too much you can neutralise the after taste by chewing on a stick of liquorice.
Bitter herbs include:
Angelica, Barberry , Boneset, Centaury, Chamomile, Dandelion, Gentian, Golden Seal, Horehound, Milk thistle, Mugwort, Peppermint, Rue, Southernwood, Tansy, Wormwood, Yarrow
A post on bitter herbs and vegetables would not be complete without mentioning bitters. Bitters are a blend of bitter herbs in an alcohol base. Not unlike tinctures these medicinal drinks are now often called “digestif”.
“Christopher Hobbs, AHG author of Foundations of Health lists angelica root, bitter orange peel, blessed thistle leaves , gentian root , goldenseal rhizome , and yarrow flowers as typical contents of bitters formulas.” (Wikipedia)
The bitters that are probably the best known around the world are Angostura Bitters and Swedish Bitters. There are many, many different variations around the world, but since bitters are not meant to contain sugar you will find some more pleasant tasting than others.