The practice of using bitters has mostly receded to folklore in the U.S., but new, small batch recipe companies and exclusive, trendy stores are starting to carry bitters and extolling their virtues. The truth is that we have used bitters for thousands of years. Some records indicate that the ancient Egyptians may have concocted bitters in jugs of wine. Nowadays, people turn their noses up at bitter flavors for the most part. In the days of hunting and gathering, our ancestors considered wild, bitter-tasting plants critical to their health.
Many of the diseases that our modern culture suffers like indigestion, gastric reflux and metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to Type 2 diabetes seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions.
Our palates became more refined as we grew more civilized and we found ourselves appreciating saltier and blander foods. Consequently, bitter herbs became less common, but ironically, more necessary. With the advent of distillation, recipes for bitters became commonplace. Many snake oil peddlers of bygone days were selling bitters of one recipe or another. One of the first bitters to ever be bottled and sold in mass was Angostura bitters. The recipe was first compounded as a cure for sea sickness by German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824.
The basic concept is a mixture of herbs that tastes bitter. The actual taste is the absolute most important aspect of the recipe. Bitter herbs are thought to stimulate digestive function by increasing saliva production and promoting both stomach acid and digestive enzyme production which leads to improved appetite and digestion. As a result, they are particularly useful when there is low stomach acid, but not for heartburn, where too much stomach acid could initially exacerbate the situation.
It is theorized that when people ingest bitter tasting things, saliva is stimulated, which causes the stomach to product digestive enzymes which prepare the system for the process of breaking down foods. This could potentially benefit a person with slow digestion or low appetite. The more prepared the body is for food the better it is able to break it down efficiently. Proper absorption is completely dependent on the body’s ability to extract the nutrients from the food in the first place.
Some herbs that have bitter properties are dandelion, chamomile, golden seal, milk thistle, blessed thistle, wormwood and yarrow. Greens with bitter properties are endive, chicory and coriander. There are many creative ways to incorporate bitter herbs into our diet and recipes, keeping in mind the general theory that they should be ingested prior to eating and not with dessert.
Often, indigestion occurs because our bodies are forced to eat at times when it’s convenient and not necessarily the best time for our digestive systems. If someone throws a lot of work on our desk when we aren’t prepared, we can’t don’t drop everything to deal with it. Our stomachs are the same way. They need a little bit of warning before we can expect them to work efficiently.
If we take a few minutes to prepare our body for its next meal, we might find that we have a little more energy, maybe a few less aches and pains and maybe less indigestion. This summer, give bitters a try to fare better at parties and picnics and even mix up a few bottles to share with friends and family.
Whether interested in bitter herbs for medicinal, creative or culinary purposes, remember that all herbs must be used properly to obtain the best results. Before using any alternative medicine approach such as herbal treatments and remedies, it’s wise to consult with a healthcare professional, because some herbs can interact with prescription medicines or be toxic if used improperly.
Rebecca Veenstra is a chartered herbalist.