Why our taste buds don't get bitter

If you ask someone where there taste preferences lie they usually admit to weaknesses towards sweet or savory. Sweet can range from anything from highly processed sugary treats, simple carbohydrates and fruit. Someone who craves savoury it usually refers to the saltier end of the palliate. Savoury for many means the love of olives, cheese, cured meats and of course chips. However, there is less preference towards bitter or sour foods.

This is most likely due to how our diet has changed phenomenally in recent generations. The bread that is baked is sweeter and less dense so people will eat more. Processed biscuits and cakes contain more sugar than what they did 20 years ago. What were previously considered “treat foods” have become cheaper and consumed more frequently than in the past. Australians love for fast Asian food caters for the Western pallet of sweet and salty. Consider the sushi roll; sweet rice with salty soy sauce. As a result, our senses become more receptive to the sweet and salty. The response to bitter and sour is like a culinary instrument of torture.

It could be said that its an innate human response to reject bitter flavours. Bitter vegetables contain phytochemicals commonly referred to as bitter alkaloids. These alkaloids protect the plants against predators, they act defensively as a poison. This may explain why kids have been flicking brussel sprouts from their fork for centuries.

My love for bitter greens stems from my Italian heritage. Italians love their bitter greens; radicchio, chicory, endive, cavolo nero, turnip greens, thistles and dandelion leaves. Some of these greens are considered weeds by many but they are truly savoured in the Italian diet. I grew up eating these greens cooked with cannellini beans then sautéed in a good amount of garlic and olive oil. I can’t tell you just how good it is. Interestingly enough these bitter greens are so comforting to the women in my family. My grandmother used to make them especially for me and my sister when we were pregnant as we both really craved them. Other than her superstition of having to feed the craving there is so much more that the bitter greens have to offer the hormonal woman. The compounds in the dandelion and thistle are used in traditional medicine to assist in liver clearance. The liver has a vital role in converting and excreting excess hormones.

The lack of appreciation for bitter foods is a real loss for our health. Bitter foods contains so many phytochemicals that can reverse many of our common illnesses.

Bitter greens support liver health: in traditional herbal medicine bitter greens such as milk thistle are used to treat liver health for thousand years. Milk thistle’s antioxidant activities supports liver health by preventing lipid peroxidation, support liver detoxification and prevent liver fibrosis. (2) With this traditional application in mind inclusion of bitter greens are generally supportive of good liver health.

Bitter greens and digestive health: bitter greens are therapeutic for treating a range of digestive conditions, in particular reflux and symptoms of GERD. The bitter compounds in the vegetables stimulate bile production from the gall bladder to support healthy digestion. Dandelion is believed to reduce the incidence of gall stones. Assisting in breaking down the crystals that accumulate in the gall bladder. Try eating a small bowl of radicchio or rocket drizzled with a little olive oil and apple cider vinegar before your main meal. Drinking dandelion root tea can relieve symptoms of indigestion and sluggish functioning gall bladder.

Bitter greens and cancer prevention: Indole-3 carbinol has been linked to preventing common cancers, and supporting at risk of oestrogen cancers women with oestrogen driven cancers. The Indoles in cruciferous vegetables are shown to down regulate the oestrogen responsive genes and upregulate BRAC1 gene. Broccoli sprouts produce the highest amount of indole-3 carbinol. Indoles in broccoli sprouts oestrogen modulating activity supports the clearance of excess oestrogen.(1) Consuming a range of vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kale and mustard greens are all beneficial dietary inclusions. However it is the broccoli sprouts that contain the highest indoles.

Bitter foods and glucose metabolism: probably the best example of how bitter foods support glucose metabolism is bitter melon . Asian cultures have for many centuries used this unassuming looking gourd to manage diabetes. The studies using bitter melon demonstrated the need for further research into how exactly bitter melon positively influences blood sugar metabolism.

Science altering bitter foods: For many years scientists have been trying to find a way of removing the bitter alkaloids from these vegetables but still maintain their nutrient density. We can now get baby kale and brussel sprouts that are tender and less bitter than their mature vegetables. However not allowing the vegetable to mature means they do not contain the antioxidants (phenolic compounds) in the form of bitter alkaloids that are so good for us.

I recommend using the more mature vegetables and preparing them in a way that is more palatable, consider cooking brussel sprouts with garlic and pancetta, wilting kale in hearty minestrone or adding orange slices to a radicchio salad.

If there was ever a fruit that scientist have attempted to alter its grapefruit. Grapefruit is rich in a type of pectin called furanocoumarin.

Grapefruits are said to inhibit every condition from cholesterol, atherosclerosis and cancer growth. Unfortunately, grapefruits inhibit the livers CYP enzyme activity, this is a problem for individuals taking certain medications. Inhibiting the CYP enzyme activity means that the drug bypasses the liver and enters the bloodstream directly, not good. (3)

In an attempt to try and reduce the grapefruit effect on medications, scientist have tried to develop grapefruits that are low in furanocoumarins. These varieties are usually crossed with Seville oranges and are red or pink fleshed. However without the active furanocoumarins they are not as nutrient dense and still interact with some medications.

Hopefully pharmacology will develop drugs that do not interact with otherwise nutritionally abundant foods in the future rather than removing the nutritional properties from foods to accommodate for pharmaceutical interactions.

10 ways to include bitter foods into your diet:

  1. Toss some bitter greens into your salad: mix them up, try: radicchio, rocket, endive, witlof or kale

  2. Enjoy a cup of herbal tea: try dandelion, stinging nettle and milk thistle. They are great for digestion and liver support.

  3. Sauté turnip greens with cannellini beans, olive oil and garlic

  4. Add some kale, dandelion, Tuscan cabbage (cavolo nero) to your minestrone or vegetable soup.

  5. Bitter melon can be added to curries, Asian broths or even stuffed with a spicy mince

  6. Enjoy half a grapefruit before your breakfast

  7. Switch to chocolate made from pure raw cocoa

  8. Blanch Brussel sprouts, toss in coconut oil and roast until outer leaves are crisp

  9. Try adding mustard cress or broccoli sprouts to salads and sandwiches

  10. Make non-alcoholic aperitif with mix of grapefruit and pomegranate juice.

Bitter foods are just one example of how the foods we eat can influence our health, it truly does illustrate that food is medicine.

To find out how you can your diet can help heal your body make an appointment with me at Holy Mackerel Health.