March 24, 2024

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When was the last time you ​went out of your way to eat something that tastes bitter? Wild food enthusiasts and herbalists know that the bitter taste triggers a cascade of health benefits including improved digestion, reduced cravings, and increased well-being.

The bitter taste has been part of our diet throughout our long co-evolution with the plants we eat. But in the last few hundred years as modern food has become more and more industrialized and processed, the bitter taste (along with tart and astringent, two other possible taste markers for wild and wildly nutritious plant foods) has dwindled away. Bitter has been almost eclipsed by sweet. 


And what are the consequences to our health? 

What are we missing when we taste no bitter?

(Includes excerpts from "One Small Serve: how to grow and use 7 nutritious plants that you can harvest from for years without having to replant.")

The bitter taste is bad for business

The sweet taste and the bitter taste have opposite effects on humans. Sweet tasting foods appeal to us; bitter tasting foods initially repel us.

Research suggests that this might be because getting enough calories was a very high priority for our ancestors, and sweetness indicates that a food is high in calories. On the other hand the bitter taste can signal the presence of toxins -- so when we encounter it unexpectedly, we pucker and spit.

Since some bitter tasting things are poisonous and others (think dandelion leaves or brussel sprouts) are very nutritious, a taste for bitter is something we have to learn from our elders; we're not born with it. (Which is probably why it takes so much persistence to teach children to eat their greens.) But humans of all ages know instinctively that sweet-tasting foods are good to eat.

(Well. Let me re-phrase what I just said, because "sweet tasting" is a relative term. All the foods we formerly perceived to be sweet were good for humans to eat before we suddenly, in only the last few generations, gained easy access to cheap, nutrient-deficient, excessively sweet foods. In fact sugar, in the pure forms we now encounter it in, is an addictive stimulant and as such, the more of it we eat the more we need to eat to get the same "hit." But I'm stopping before I go down that rabbit hole or we'll be here for two more weeks before I can publish this post.)

Back to bitter versus sweet, and why you will not find the bitter taste on supermarket shelves. The bitter taste makes people pucker their faces and pause; the sweet taste prompts people to eat more, mindlessly, past the point of fullness. If you were a profit-focused food manufacturer, which would you include in your products?


Learn about 7 easy, nutritious, mostly uncommon food plants that you can harvest from for years without replanting. 

(The plants in this ebook are suited to the tropics and subtropics, and most will also be happy indoors during winter where frost occurs.)

What are we missing when we taste no bitterness?

Food manufacturers either don't know or don't care to know that bitter tasting foods are an essential part of a healthy diet for humans.

Wild food foragers and herbalists know that many deeply nutritious wild food plants (such as dandelions) and some domesticated ones (such as sweet potato greens or brassicas) taste bitter to one degree or another. Cutting all of them out of our diet would be a very unwise thing to do, and in fact some herbalists (see Resources below) believe that many chronic, modern day health conditions (the "diseases of affluence") are a direct result of not enough bitter tasting plant foods in modern diets.

A plant’s scent is its language.  Its color communicates.  In its flavor it speaks to us; not in our language, but in [its own]. Among the most pervasive flavors found in healing herbs is that of bitterness.  ...  If plants’ tongues speak to our tongues, then what do we not hear when we taste no bitterness?"

In his essay, "Blessed Bitters," (from which the above quote comes) Jim McDonald describes at length how regularly eating bitter foods and herbs can help with digestive issues, type 2 diabetes, cravings, addictions, mood disorders, and more, and can help promote groundedness and present-moment awareness.

What happens in your body when you eat something bitter?

When we encounter the bitter taste, first the tongue wakes up and then so does the rest of the body. Bitter taste receptors on our tongues trigger a cascade of bodily responses called the 'bitter reflex,' to optimize digestion and to cope with potential toxins. 

To summarize an extremely complex process, bitter tasting foods prompt our salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and liver to produce stomach acid, bile, and enzymes to augment digestion and nutrient assimilation. And then all along the digestive tract, more bitter taste receptors stimulate the secretion of hormones that make us feel full and satisfied.

So when the food we eat includes the bitter taste, we eat less, we digest better, we absorb more nutrients, and we're somewhat protected from food poisoning.

But there’s more. Eating something bitter at the start of a meal can also augment healthy digestion by calming the nerves and slowing the heart rate, which contributes to a sense of calmness and well-being.

Bitter taste receptors have been found almost everywhere in our bodies, sensing bacteria, regulating immunity, flushing out potentially harmful molecules, and regulating smooth muscle tone.

That's a surprising array of health benefits to get from something as simple and easy as, say, munching on three dandelion leaves in the garden before dinner. Or making sure you include bitter tasting greens and vegetables in as many of your meals as you can.

I believe somebody somewhere said something to the effect that we could "let food be our medicine." That sounds to me like a much safer and more comprehensive approach than taking pills.

bitter tasting greens and veges with many health benefits

How to get the bitter taste back into your diet

An easy way to get a daily dose of natural bitters is to stand in the garden and chew on some dandelion leaves. Yes, they will be very bitter (and make sure they haven't been sprayed and no dogs have been marking territory near by).

For salad eaters, there are many bitter salad greens to choose from (for example, rocket, kale, watercress, nasturtium, and you can add dandelion greens to salads, too). Start with mostly bland leaves like domesticated lettuce and add just a few bitter leaves, then gradually adjust the ratio as your taste for older, wilder food grows.

For a salad dressing to complement bitter greens, start by half filling a jar with good quality olive oil. Then add judicious amounts of:

  • soy sauce or salt
  •     raw apple cider vinegar
  •     mustard (optional)
  •     grated ginger, garlic, or turmeric, chopped fennel leaves or seeds, or tarragon (all optional)
  •     honey (optional, and you might want to train yourself to reduce it over time)

Shake, taste, adjust. Douse your salad and toss it well, give it a few minutes for the oil and vinegar in the dressing to start pre-digesting your greens for you, then enjoy.

If you're a cooked veg person, most members of the brassica family (especially brussel sprouts, radish, swede, and turnip) provide a degree of bitterness.

Sweet potato leaves are another highly nutritious, bitter-tasting edible green vegetable. 

Be sure to cook/serve your greens and veggies with a healthy fat (such as butter, coconut oil, olive oil, or lard) to support your body in absorbing fat soluble vitamins and minerals.

Vinegar is also always a good addition to any bitter vegetable -- it helps cut the bitter taste, augments our digestive juices, and acts as a solvent to make minerals more available to us.


In this post I've talked mostly about greens and veggies, but some fruits are bitter too, or tart. I'll finish this post with a little fruit anecdote...

Modern, domesticated food plants? Or old wild ones?

Recently our family brought home apples from the supermarket (what in the world was I thinking!?). 

They had little stickers with codes on them, so I got the smart phone, scanned, tapped... and was treated to a video showing huge fruit tree monocultures, a tractor driving along the rows spraying something on the trees, and spotless, gleaming processing facilities. A calming, well-modulated voice assured me that "we use the best of modern technology to produce food that's good for you."

Hmmnn. Note to self. Go back to buying the smaller and very expensive organic apples. Or better yet, search out older, wilder fruits that can't found in the supermarket. Ones that taste tart or bitter and go mushy quickly, rather than tasting smooth and sweet and staying firm for an unnaturally long time.


One Small Serve

Growing and processing your own food is a huge task. In One Small Serve, I show you a smaller, simpler approach. Learn how to grow and use 7 food plants that are

  • easy and very low-maintenance
  • productive for two or more years without replanting
  • deeply nutritious

Establish a "one-serve-at-a-time" home-grown food habit that's easy to maintain

Includes a series of free extra tips + free email support

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