April Health Genie: Reviving Bitters
Note: These articles are not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.
Dear Health Genie:
I’ve been hearing a lot about bitters lately. What are they and why should I use them?
Did you know that the tongue only has taste buds for six flavors? They are: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, astringent and umami. The rest of what is perceived as “taste” is actually from smell (that is why when you are sick and have a stuffy nose, you have limited taste). The human body needs all six flavors and has evolved with them throughout time. Historically, the human diet contained mostly the bitter flavor, from greens, roots, and herbs. Now, the average American diet is almost completely void of this flavor and has been replaced with sweet and salty. This can result in indigestion, sugar cravings, a sluggish liver, upset stomach, and a poor appetite, among other ailments.
Once the tongue has received the bitter taste, it sends a signal down the digestive tract to start producing enzymes for digestion. It gives the liver a “gentle push “to excrete enzymes like bile, which help to emulsify and digest fats. It also sends a signal to the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid to breakdown food particles. Basically, it fires up the digestion in order to prepare the body for the food that is about to be ingested. The classic salad appetizer was traditionally filled with bitter greens (like arugula, kale, spinach, and dandelion greens) and contributes to the custom of a salad before a meal. It also plays into the tradition of happy hour, which originally incorporated a bitter tonic or cocktail before supper. The bitter flavor is most effective before a meal but can also be used after a meal to encourage digestion. In this case, it can be especially helpful in the instances of overeating or bloating.
The bitter’s ability to stimulate the liver also plays an important role in the detoxification process. It helps tone the liver (and other tissues) and keeps it in shape so that it can continue to do it’s very important role: filter toxins, aid in digestion, and recycle and purify the blood. This, in turn, can help stimulate appetite, clear up any skin issues, and help curb sugar cravings. It is a great addition to any cleanse program, fast, or skin purification plan. The spring is the perfect time to start incorporating bitter back into the diet, as it is a natural time of cleansing.
So, where can one find this flavor and how can you start incorporating it back into your diet? First, if you like eating salads, incorporate bitter greens like arugula, kale, spinach, bok choy, or collards. Next time you are in the garden weeding, save the small dandelion green tops (the big mature leaves can be too fibrous to enjoy) and add it to your salad. A lot of health food stores (like City Market) have also started carrying fresh dandelion greens. Other bitter foods include zucchini, eggplant, grapefruit, and coffee. Some spices include turmeric, cardamom, and ginger. There are many bitter herbs out there as well - some of the common ones include goldenseal, milk thistle, artichoke, angelica, and fever few.
Another simple way to add bitters back into the diet is with a tincture or tonic made from bitter herbs. Often these are sold in a dropper bottle or spray bottle that can either be added to cocktails or sparkling water or can be taken by the dropper. We are lucky here in Burlington to have our own local (and fantastic!) bitter company, Urban Moonshine. They make bitters accessible to everyone from the cocktail lover, to the herbalist, to the on-the-run parent, and everyone in-between. They make a mild maple bitter tonic, perfect for a novel bitter user, that has a sweetness to round out the sharpness of the bitter. They also make a citrus bitter, an original bitter, bitters in spray bottles and in refillable bottles - you name it.
So whether it’s keeping an Urban Moonshine bitter spray bottle in your purse, adding bitters to cocktails, spicing up your salad, or incorporating bitter foods into your meals, this is a flavor that is worth reviving. Visit http://www.urbanmoonshine.com/about-bitters/ for more information about bitters and to read testimonials.
Cheers to a happy, healthy, and much anticipated spring!
The Health Genie