In this age of refined and often bland foods, anything tasting bitter is avoided by many North Americans. In fact, the shelves of supermarkets are lined with products that have had any bitter flavour replaced by sweet or salty. It hasn't always been so—prairie pioneers, for example foraged in the woods and fields, plucking greens and berries that often had a bitter edge. In some European countries today, refined foods are not as common, and bitter greens and sour unripe fruits are eaten with gusto in the belief they aid digestion. Is this an 'old wives tale' simply part of folk medicine, or is there some truth to this so-called fable? Would the Canadian population acquire a health benefit from including more “bitter foods” (think arugula, chicory, watercress, dandelion greens, turmeric, cilantro, jicama root) in the diet in addition to adding interest to meals?
Fortunately, not all that's bitter has been removed from our diet—we may still enjoy a salad with a few bitter greens tossed in (although not common), citrus zest is sprinkled on dishes for abit of punch and you will have heard of cocktail bitters added to alcoholic drinks to cut sweetness and give an edge. In Europe and South America, digestifs, containing a variety of bitter botanicals such as gentian, spices and citrus zest are consumed at the end of the meal to help with the process of digestion.
Bloating and pain
In order to understand how bitters or bitter foods might aid digestion, we need to explore what happens when the system is not working properly. Usual symptoms are constipation or diarrhea, flatulence, bloating and pains in the stomach area. However, these are the obvious symptoms easily traced to the digestive system. Other more serious consequences of non-optimal digestion is flagging energy—ranging from tiredness to severe fatigue if the problem continues—since nutrients such as protein, iron and vitamin B12 are not being properly absorbed and wastes (metabolic by-products) are not being eliminated. It is apparent that an efficient digestive system is the foundation of good health.
Many of the symptoms of poor digestion indicate low stomach acid production as well as inefficient movement of food mass. As soon as a bitter flavour is detected by the taste buds on the tongue (located at the back), a signal is sent out to the vagus nerve which stimulates the various organs involved in digestion—stomach, pancreas, gall bladder and intestines. This signal increases the strength of peristaltic waves (the movement of the digestive tract which helps mix digestive juices with food and keeps moving the mass forward).
In addition, when the system gets the cue of bitters coming down the tract, the production of digestive juices including hydrochloric acid and bile is increased. If there is not enough stomach acid present during digestion, the body fails to break down food components which means vital nutrients are not being absorbed. So even if one is eating a wholesome diet, if nutrients are not being absorbed they pass out of the system unutilized. In the long run, consistent low amounts of stomach acid can damage stomach tissues which contributes to esophageal reflux.
Used for energy
Also vital in digestion is the production of an adequate amount of bile by the liver; its role is important in digesting fats which may be used for energy. The digestion of fats also permits the assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and K, all critical to optimum health. Bile also plays a significant role in helping the liver to excrete waste materials by lubricating the lining of the intestinal tract. Thus it stands to reason that “dry” intestines might result in constipation.
We need to be aware that consuming bitters is only one factor in stimulating the digestive system. Any food that enters the mouth, then is chewed and swallowed stimulates the digestive system—not just bitters. The role of so-called “appetizers” in a meal is to start the juices flowing for the heavier foods which are to follow. Other ways to help digestion and elimination is chewing food well and eating slowly, engaging in plenty of exercise, drinking an adequate amount of water and eating foods with fibre. In fact, while eating greens such as kale, collards, endive and arugula is encouraged to allow bitters to do their work, these foods are high in fibre which in itself aids the digestive process.
You will be interested to know that you can find bitters in a bottle on the market to support the function of the stomach, assisting in the digestive process and thus helping to reduce bloating, flatulence and constipation. This is a liquid tonic that is composed of various bitters which may include gentian, citrus peel, barberry root, orris root and cinchona bark along with more aromatic substances such as chamomile, cloves and ginger.