The Bitter Truth

by Dr. Sarah Nyrose BSc ND

Bitter. It’s a flavour that we all can recognize, but it’s difficult to describe. Neither salty nor sour, bitterness is the sharp flavour in a sip of black coffee, or the pungent after-taste of dandelion greens.

 

We often have an aversion to this distinct flavour, which is not surprising, given that our ability to detect bitter compounds was thought to have evolved as a means to avoid potential toxins. Humans have 25 different bitter taste receptors, which are capable of detecting thousands of bitter molecules, compared to only three taste receptors for sweet foods.1

For centuries bitters were used in traditional herbal medicine across cultures and around the world. Whether it was the globe artichoke used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, dandelion leaves consumed by the North American First Nations, or the gentian root harvested by herbalists throughout Europe—bitters were prolific.

Perhaps most famously in Western Europe, were the Swedish Bitters, a compounded medicine composed of a variety of bitter herbs, which was widely used from the 1730’s until the 1960’s. While the medical claims associated with this herbal formula changed over the decades, one thing remained constant: it was used for digestive complaints. In 1964 it was deemed that Swedish Bitters had no place in “rational medical therapy,” and was phased out as a standardized medicine.

With little scientific research behind its application in health, the use of bitters declined. Aside from finding bitter tinctures in herbal apothecaries, Swedish Bitters and other traditional bitter herbs were largely disregarded. 

That is, until recently.

Our understanding of bitters has shifted, and what was once viewed as solely a distasteful flavour, has now been shown to play a complex and crucial role in our digestive system.3

Here’s what we know today:

Bitter compounds have an effect on our digestion starting from the first bite. Our tongue is lined with bitter receptors, and the bitter flavour elicits a signal to the brain via our nervous system to alert your body to their presence. Bitter compounds trigger the release of stomach (gastric) acid, which helps to breakdown and denature proteins.4 As bitter foods move to the stomach, we release the “hunger hormone” (ghrelin). This hormone initially increases our food intake, but in fact then acts to delay our stomachs from emptying, creating a sensation of fullness, or satiation, and reducing overall cravings.3,5 

Our understanding of bitters has shifted, and what was once viewed as solely a distasteful flavour, has now been shown to play a complex and crucial role in our digestive system.

In the next phase, the bitters move into our small intestine where they help the pancreas produce enzymes and encourage the gallbladder to release bile—all processes that help to further digest sugars and fats.3 Bitters directly influence enteroendocrine L-cells, which supports the production of insulin and delays gastric emptying. These two actions together reduce a spike in blood sugars, and contribute to balancing blood glucose.6

In summary, bitters are known to:

  • Stimulate appetite.
  • Stimulate the release of stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes and bile production—all contributing to the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
  • Delay stomach emptying, creating a sensation of fullness.
  • Contribute to balancing blood sugars.

A better understanding of bitters has sparked a renewed interest in these traditional medicinal compounds. Research is currently focusing on the therapeutic impacts of bitters and the extent of bitter receptors throughout the body.

It has been recently shown that genetic variation (polymorphisms) for bitter taste receptors are quite common in humans, and have a profound effect on how individuals detect and perceive certain bitter compounds.3 Differences in taste acuity may affect our dietary choices and how much we eat. Given that bitters influence our dietary preferences, the modulation of our digestion, and the balance of blood sugar, it’s not surprising that researchers are focusing on exploring the use of bitters for the management of digestive issues, obesity and type II diabetes.3,6

Furthermore, while it was once believed that bitter taste receptors were only found in the digestive tract, new research has revealed that they are also found in the epithelial lining of the ovary and prostate. A study published in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry in 2019, demonstrated that activation of the bitter receptors on ovarian cancer cells increased cancer cell death. The authors concluded that “further investigation of this receptor family’s intracellular signalling pathways may potentially lead to new therapeutic strategies using new chemotherapeutic or nutraceutical drugs and a better understanding of their functions.” 7

It appears in the 1960’s that the potential of bitters was underestimated. While it has the reputation of being an unfounded herbal remedy, bitter herbs and food play an intricate role in supporting our digestion. While research will continue to explore the therapeutic potential of these compounds, their strength inarguably lies in the ability to stimulate digestion.

In today’s day and age, where busy schedules and high stress levels diminish appetites, lower our stomach acid and dampen digestion, incorporating more “bitter” into your diet can prove to be beneficial.

Here are a couple of ways to include bitters in your diet:

#1—Eat more greens.

While our diet was once rich with bitter plants and roots, today the standard Canadian diet is comprised largely of grain-rich carbohydrates and animal protein. We’ve developed a predilection for the sweet taste and have selectively reduced the bitter out of our diets.
The simplest way to increase your bitter intake through food is to eat more vegetables and fruit with that “bitter taste”. These include kale, arugula, dandelion greens, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, grapefruit and fermented foods. Not only does this add a unique flavour profile to your dish, but they also help to kick-start your digestion. 

Try our Grapefruit Fennel Salad, as a bitter addition to your plate.

#2—Add aromatic bitters to your drink!

Often used by cocktail connoisseurs, aromatic bitters (bitter herbs extracted in an alcohol base) can be used to make an aperitif—a drink taken before a meal to stimulate appetite.

To make your own bitter soda, add 5–20 drops of your aromatic bitter to a little soda water with a dash of lemon juice.

A number of commonly used herbs for bitter liqueurs include gentian, burdock, and chamomile.

There are numerous aromatic bitter companies and products, perhaps the most widely known in North America being Angostura. There are also a number of great local bitter companies, including:

  • Ms Better’s Bitters, a Vancouver based company, who has a wide selection of bitter options. Try adding their Strawberry Mah Kwan to your summer beverage.
  • Bittered Sling, a Vancouver based company has be producing unique bitters since 2012. Try their Orange & Juniper in your fizzy soda with lemon.

Stay tuned for our customized aromatic bitter formula from Apotheka Herbs, and our Grapefruit & Rosemary Shrub.

 

***Those who should avoid aromatic bitters include pregnant women, and individuals with gallbladder disease, kidney stones, stomach ulcers or gastritis. Check with your primary health provider if you have any concerns or are on medications.

  1. Turner, A., Veysey, M., Keely, S., Scarlett, C., Lucock, M., & Beckett, E. (2018). Interactions between Bitter Taste, Diet and Dysbiosis: Consequences for Appetite and Obesity. Nutrients, 10(10), 1336.
  2. Ahnfelt, N. O., & Fors, H. (2016). Making early modern medicine: Reproducing Swedish bitters. Ambix, 63(2), 162-183.
  3. Depoortere, I. (2014). Taste receptors of the gut: emerging roles in health and disease. Gut63(1), 179-190.
  4. Liszt, K. I., Ley, J. P., Lieder, B., Behrens, M., Stöger, V., Reiner, A., … & Widder, S. (2017). Caffeine induces gastric acid secretion via bitter taste signaling in gastric parietal cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114(30), E6260-E6269
  5. Janssen, S., Laermans, J., Verhulst, P. J., Thijs, T., Tack, J., & Depoortere, I. (2011). Bitter taste receptors and α-gustducin regulate the secretion of ghrelin with functional effects on food intake and gastric emptying. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(5), 2094-2099.
  6. Xie, C., Wang, X., Young, R. L., Horowitz, M., Rayner, C. K., & Wu, T. (2018). Role of intestinal bitter sensing in enteroendocrine hormone secretion and metabolic control. Frontiers in endocrinology9.
  7. Martin, L. T., Nachtigal, M. W., Selman, T., Nguyen, E., Salsman, J., Dellaire, G., & Dupré, D. J. (2019). Bitter taste receptors are expressed in human epithelial ovarian and prostate cancers cells and noscapine stimulation impacts cell survival. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry454(1-2), 203-214.  

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