Americans Are Finally Waking Up to the Enormous Health Benefits of Bitter Foods

A baby will put almost anything in its mouth, even a sour lemon, without flinching. But bitter foods are quickly ejected with a grimace. We are born with zero tolerance for bitterness, presumably because most toxins are bitter. But many non-toxic, beneficial foods, as well as many types of medicine, are bitter as well. Distinguishing among good and bad sources of bitterness is an important part of growing up.

Through careful experimentation, we learn which bitter foods are OK. Most Americans eventually figure out that coffee, beer and chocolate, for example, are good. As we learn to tolerate bitterness, we learn to distinguish among its many forms. Tannin bitterness in wine is not the same as burnt toast bitterness, which is unlike the bitterness of broccoli, or a dandelion leaf.

Understanding this nuance, and associating the positive effects of certain foods with their bitter tastes, often leads to aversion toward bitterness being replaced with appreciation. My wife eats radicchio leaves like some people eat potato chips. She can annihilate three heads in a single sitting, using the maroon and white foliage to scoop up whatever is for dinner, or dipping the leaves into a bowl of dressing. She says she only eats it because she’s too lazy to make a bigger salad, and radicchio is the most convenient and efficient proxy for that daily dose of raw plant matter her body has come to crave. She uses a dressing that is half olive oil, with the other half being equal parts soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.

Bitter foods like radicchio can be among the most super of the “superfoods.” They are full of vitamins, antioxidants and myriad phytonutrients—aka, biologically active plant compounds that are associated with positive health effects, such as the very bitter and beneficial glucosinolates found in broccoli and cabbage. This understanding can be enough for some people to appreciate bitter flavors. And perhaps some people are so tuned into their bodies that they can, at some level, feel the positive impacts.

But not everyone can learn to tolerate bitter, even as adults. Some people are genetically endowed “supertasters” with so many bitter receptors that the responses to certain bitter foods are amplified to intolerable levels.

The human genome codes for at least 30 different types of bitter taste receptors, each of which can be expressed in different densities and locations—not limited just to the tongue—in different people. This creates a huge level of genetic variation in the human ability to perceive bitterness. We each have a unique bitter side to explore.

Compared to many Asian and European cultures, North Americans aren’t very enthusiastic bitter eaters. But that may be changing, argues Jenifer McLagan in her new cookbook Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor. Consumption of hoppy beers, bitter greens and dark chocolate are all on the rise, she writes, as is interest in cocktails containing bitters. And these niche products are just the beginning. McLagan believes there is a place for bitterness in almost every bite you take.

“Without a touch of bitterness, your cooking will be lacking a dimension,” she writes. 

Her recipes run the gamut from simple, like roast celery, to involved, like pork chops in coffee black currant sauce. Each recipe contains a trick or concept to preparing bitter foods that can be used elsewhere. This diversity of bitter-laced meals is enough to lull you into the idea that bitterness is the center of the culinary universe, which for McLagan, it is. “I crave bitterness, quite a bit,” she told me by phone. “When I’m creating a meal or a menu I really want to get some bitterness in there.”

If bitterness is making a comeback, the forces of anti-bitter have never been stronger either. There is a niche in the food industry that’s devoted to suppressing the taste of bitterness in foods by using agents known as “bitter blockers.”

There are several reasons why bitter blockers might be used, explained Luke Haffenden, chief flavorist of Novotaste Corporation, a purveyor of “competitive flavoring systems.”

Maybe you’re a pharmaceutical maker with a product that’s too bitter, Haffenden explained by phone, or maybe you want to tone down the bitterness in a product flavored with grapefruit juice. 

“We come up with different strategies to fight bitter compounds found in finished products,” Haffenden told me. Depending on the nature of the offending agent, this can be a challenge.

“There’s not one magic bullet to blocking bitterness,” he said. It’s a process of identifying the specific compounds and counteracting them on a case-by-case basis.

Fittingly, Haffenden says he’s not personally a huge fan of bitter taste.

“I can appreciate it in low amounts, when it's balanced,” he said, and therein lies his advice for serving bitter ingredients to a fickle crowd.  

“Increase the complexity. Start playing around with the other sensations of the tongue,” Haffenden said. He suggests playing with the levels of acid, salt, sweetness and fat, as well as elements of mouth feel, like texture and crunchiness, to tone down the bitterness.

One can also add complexity within the bitter spectrum, taking advantage of the range and diversity of compounds that contain bitterness, he said. “If you were to add a hint of green tea, a hint of coffee, and some tannic acid, the single bittering compounds aren’t going to hit you as hard. You more or less average out that bitterness.”

McLagan, on the other hand, doesn’t like to get too busy with her bitter. When I told her about a tasty venison stir-fry I’d recently made with radicchio and grapefruit, she hesitated.

“I’m careful about putting too many bitter things into one dish,” she said. “It’s more interesting to make it subtle, to the point where it’s not bitter on the first taste, but as you eat the dish it’s more complex and interesting and fascinating. When there’s just a little undercurrent of bitterness, that’s when I think it works the best.”

Another of her bitter peeves: neutralizing it with sweetness. Fat and salt are McLagan’s pairings of choice for bitter. They elevate the flavor of the dish without diminishing its bitter tastes.

“Bitter makes you stop and think about what you’re eating. If it’s sugary sweet you just jam it down your face.”

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