Bitters Are Better


You may have heard that bitter means toxic, but that isn’t always the case. For many vegetables, bitter tasting compounds can be some of the most healthful for a variety of reasons. Different chemical compounds and molecules make up the color, taste, and aroma which contribute heavily to the flavor of our foods. To make the concept of flavor even more complicated, individuals have varied abilities to perceive different levels of taste such as sweet, sour, and bitter which can be affected by genetics and diet. Certain combinations of the five major tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) can also affect the eater’s opinion on whether a food or flavor is acceptable, or unpalatable.

Our fruits and vegetables are some of the most flavorful foods available, many combining tastes to form delectable flavors (think: sweet and sour like citrus, salty and umami like celery, and so on). A lot of vegetables (and some fruits) contain bio-active compounds that are beneficial to overall health, however many of these compounds are bitter, acrid, and/or astringent and therefore aversive to the average consumer.


What makes them bitter and why should I eat them?

These bioactive compounds have long been viewed as plant-based toxins because they are often toxic to insect predators, but they are not present in quantities that would harm humans. In fact, many of these bitter tasting compounds have been shown to have anticancer and chemopreventive benefits. Various studies have shown that individuals with diets that include a high intake of brassica vegetables have lower rates of certain cancers.

Glucosinolates are among the most notable and studied bioactive compounds, found naturally in green vegetables such as members brassica family: kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and so on. Glucosinolates and their derivatives, especially isothiocyanates and sulphorane, exert a variety of biological activities that may be relevant to health promotion and disease prevention in humans. In test tube studies, kale extracts have blocked the proliferation of human colon cancer cells. Glucosinolate is broken down into these other biologically active compounds during food preparation, chewing, and digestion and these secondary compounds can be gained or lost during food storage and preparation. For example, sulphorane is available in much higher concentrations in raw broccoli versus cooked, but after ten days of cold storage, raw broccoli has lost a majority of it’s glucosinolate. Learn more about how to get the most nutrition out of your produce by reading an Avalow favorite: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.

What about my cocktail bitters?

You may be more familiar with bitters in cocktails and as digestive aids. The term “bitters” also refers to herbal or botanical decoctions such as lavender, orange peel, and gentian, commonly ingested before meals to stimulate digestive enzymes including saliva and stomach acid. Although the jury is still out about the effectiveness of various herbal bitters on digestion, we still recommend enjoying herbal bitters for a balanced cocktail.


Be Sweet, Eat Your Bitters

So in this case, bitter is better. Kale and brussel sprouts have some of the highest levels glucosinolates, and they are also the least liked among picky eaters (not a coincidence). Make your bitter greens more palatable by cooking or pairing them with other strong and pungent flavors. Richer flavors like cheese or cream, and fats such as oil based dressings can help tone down bitter flavors (just remember to use in moderation). In general, cooking your dark leafy greens will make them less bitter. You can also marinade leafy greens like kale, collards, and cabbage in an acid like lemon or lime juice, and vinegar to begin the breakdown process making it easier to digest, especially if you want to leave the greens raw. Even adding a squeeze of lemon on top of whatever you’re making can add a whole new dimension of flavor. Get creative!

Here are our favorite combos:

Kale + Garlic + Acid (lemon, vinegar)

Cabbage + Salt + Vinegar

Broccoli + Parmesan + olive oil

Braised Collards + Apples

Let us know if you find a combination you love, or if you create one yourself!