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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

The Forgotten Benefits of Bitter Foods

Although the word bitters may make you think of the various plant preparations containing alcohol used to give cocktails a bittersweet flavor, this article is about the health benefits of bitter foods.

Our diet now tends to be heavy on sugars and carbohydrates that turn into glucose (sugar) in the body and low on bitter foods that stimulate the secretion of gastrointestinal hormones and modulate gut motility via activation of bitter taste receptors located in the GI tract. ( Rezaie et al, 2021)

Digestive bitters "stimulate your taste buds to create more saliva, which in turn jump starts your digestive system. You might not realize it, but saliva is one of the keys to digestion, contributing to the breakdown of starches and fats.

"Some people have gastrointestinal issues due to the fact that they don’t have enough stomach acid. In these cases, bitters can help create some of that extra juice to help break down food .... They increase the amount of gastric juices in your stomach, which ultimately helps with digestion.” (Cleveland Clinic, 2022)


Side note about that last zone in case you're not familiar with Umami:

Umami is one of humans' core tastes. It's a Japanese word meaning 'essence of deliciousness'. This taste is often described as savory deliciousness. We taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamates and nucleotides, which are widely present in meat broths and fermented foods.

This mysterious flavor had been known for centuries but it wasn’t identified until 1908, when a Japanese researcher isolated it. He "was trying to understand what gave his wife’s soups their unique flavor. Over the course of his experiments, he arrived at the specific taste molecule, pointing to the monosodium version of glutamate that was present in the brown kelp she used to flavor her stock. It was a familiar flavor, he thought, like meat, dried fish, and katsuobushi. Ikeda temporarily termed it “umami”—the Japanese word for “savoriness”—and the name stuck." (Godbole, 2023)

"Many bitter-tasting foods are incredibly nutritious and contain a wide variety of plant-based chemicals that have significant health benefits" - including protection against cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as reduced inflammation and oxidative stress.

Other health benefits include better gut, eye and liver health.

"Most of these benefits come from the wide array of polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and even prebiotics. (Julson, 2023)

These 9 bitter foods are good for your health:

  1. Bitter melon

  2. Cruciferous vegetables

  3. Dandelion greens

  4. Citrus peel

  5. Cranberries

  6. Cocoa

  7. Coffee

  8. Green tea

  9. Red wine

See 9 Bitter Foods That Are Good for You for more information about each of the foods on this list.


"We have an extensive array of sensory receptors highly adapted to sort through the intricacies of bitter flavors. In fact, we have receptors for bitter substances throughout our bodies. 

"These receptors serve more than just a digestive function. Bitter receptors are tied to respiration, circulation, hormone signaling, and neurological function. 

"So bitterness represents more than just a flavor. It is an important part of our natural bond with nature. This bond between bitterness and how our bodies respond is an essential part of maintaining the frontier between our body and our environment." (Healthy Hildegard, 2020)


Now we get to a remarkable woman who recommended eating bitter foods 9 centuries ago!

Hildegard (1098–17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard von Bingen, was a 12th century Benedictine abbess in southern Germany, a polymath, a Christian mystic and a visionary. She was also an accomplished composer, writer and healer who created natural remedies that are still widely used in Europe today.

There's an excellent and fascinating doc film about Hildegard called The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard von Bingen I watched it on Amazon Prime Video but think it may also be available elsewhere online.


For those of you who live in New York City, be sure to visit The Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, where you can explore their Bonnefont Garden, a re-creation of a medieval medicinal garden, planted with 250 species cultivated in the Middle Ages, including many of the healing herbs, flowers and food stuffs St Hildegard used for her natural remedies in the 12th century.

Best to go late spring, summer or fall as the garden is outdoors and not so interesting in the winter. It's on the south side of the museum - a bit tricky to locate but well worth a visit.


Hildegard’s Original Bitters Tablets contain these ancient digestive herbs:

  • Gentian root

  • Angelica root

  • Ginger root

  • Artichoke root

  • Galangal root

  • Cinnamon bark

  • Cardamom seed

  • Milk Thistle seed

While I was addressing a case of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), I began to suffer from a lot of gas and burping while lying in bed unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep. Dissolving two Hildegard's Original Bitters Tablets on my tongue before getting into bed solved the problem.

I tend to like bitter foods and find the taste of these tablets pleasing.


Digestive bitters may not be good for everyone.

"If your gastrointestinal tract is working well on its own — or if it’s already working overtime — consuming bitters may actually backfire. Bitters create more gastric acid in your stomach, which can actually contribute to digestive issues in people who are predisposed to them:

  • Acid reflux

  • Bloating

  • Cramping

  • Heartburn

  • Nausea

  • Upset stomach

“If you’re already prone to these things, bitters aggravate them by making your digestive tract a little bit more reactive.

"They can interfere with medications. Think about bitters like you would any other supplement or vitamin — that is to say, they can interact negatively with medications you’re already taking. And again, you should always check with your doctor before giving them a try.

“Bitters can react with blood pressure medications, insulin, hypoglycemics and other medications, so it’s really important that you be cautious and talk to your doctor before taking anything them.

"They can worsen existing conditions. Skip the bitters if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Diabetes

  • Gallbladder disease

  • Gastritis

  • Hiatal hernia

  • Kidney stones

  • Liver problems

  • Peptic ulcers" - (Cleveland Clinic, 2022)

While researching this article, I came across this statement somewhere. Perhaps it was in Michael Conti's excellent doc film about Hildegard.

People who don't like bitters are the ones who need them most.

If you found this post interesting, please leave a comment. It would be much appreciated & would help spread the word.

The COMMENT box is at the bottom of the page, below the REFERENCES.

My profound thanks to Celina Chelala for introducing me to the work of 12th century Saint Hildegard of Bilgen.


Cleveland Clinic. (2022). What To Know Before You Try Digestive Bitters: They could help with digestion … or make existing symptoms worse. See:

Godbole, N. (2023). What Is Umami, Exactly? See:

Rezaie, P. et al. (2021). Effects of Bitter Substances on GI Function, Energy Intake and Glycaemia-Do Preclinical Findings Translate to Outcomes in Humans? Nutrients. See:,the%20GI%20tract%2C%20reduce%20food

© Copyright 2024 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.


DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


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