The Bitter Truth

In my previous post I discussed the wine, chocolate, coffee debate as it is commonly discussed in popular literature. (Mainly, antioxidants and polyphenols.) I realized that what I didn't do was discuss one of the other ways to approach some of these foods. Wine doesn't really fit this topic, but chocolate and coffee certainly do.

So let's revisit.

coffee from urth cafe

I, like many Americans, love coffee.  I don't simply mean I like the caffeine, I mean I LOVE the taste of coffee.  So much so, that I drink my coffee black.  Of course, when I'm at a cafe, I also love a good latte (such as the one pictured above from Urth Caffe in Los Angeles before I lapped that baby up).  

It's interesting that Americans love coffee so much because, as it turns out, coffee is really the only bitter taste in most American diets.  

The Five Tastes are Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter and Umami.  (Umami means savory.)  The most lacking taste in most American diets is Bitter. With the exception of coffee, most Americans don't consume any bitter foods.  Why is this bad?  Because bitter foods do many wonderful things.

Here are some of the great things that Bitters do:

  • Stimulate digestion + Aid in digestion
  • Balance/regulate blood sugar
  • Have a "cooling" and "drying" effect  (Herbalists out there will understand that one)
  • Tonic for infections

While I am a proponent of herbal medicine and absolutely believe in the bottom two, most Americans are probably more interested in the top two. The number of people in America (and increasingly all around the world) with digestive issues and blood sugar problems is huge. Put simply, bitters get our digestive juices flowing and help to break down food. They also modulate blood sugar spikes- both up and down.  

What many people don't realize is that after eating a sugar-heavy meal, your pancreas will work really hard to send lots of insulin into the blood stream in order to get that sugar into your cells. Since there is so much insulin floating around concerned with getting the sugar out of the blood and into your cells, it will actually overshoot and pull too much sugar out of your blood causing reactive hypoglycemia. Your blood sugar will actually fall too low and you will have a sugar craving. Which, of course, is actually the last thing that your body really needs. That cycle can keep repeating itself and if you indulge sugar craving after sugar craving you are heading down a path towards Type II Diabetes. Overtime, your body will not be able to keep up and that is when you get insulin resistance and become hyperglycemic, and a diabetic. Not what you want.

What is something that can help?  Well first: try not to eat a load of simple sugars, but if you do...Bitters!

The taste of bitter will squash a sugar craving immediately.

Suddenly the concept of dessert coffee makes sense, huh?  It actually aids in your digestion and can overcome blood sugar disruption.  Of course there are a lot of other bitter tasting foods out there besides coffee.

True chocolate is actually bitter.  Vermouth is a classic bitter.  (See how much fun this is?!  We are talking about coffee, chocolate and alcohol again!)

Of course, one of the best bitter foods to add to your diet are bitter greens. Most greens are bitter and most American diets are thoroughly lacking in greens. There are also many herbs that have a bitter taste such as dandelion, wormwood and goldenseal. Incorporating bitters into your diet can help stop blood sugar swings and help your body properly digest your food. It's a pretty good deal. And just to be clear, you don't want to only treat bitters as a post sugar-indulgence tonic. Try incorporating them into your everyday meals and habits; your body will thank you for it.  Plus, if you'd like to see an herbalist, I'm sure he/she knows many types of various bitters to treat certain ailments.

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.