Bitter Substances: Chicory and Co. are so Healthy

It takes some getting used to but is healthy: bitter substances have a positive effect on digestion and can help you lose weight. They are contained in many foods such as chicory, artichokes, or olives.

Bitter is one of the five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, and umami (savory). It is the most unpopular of all flavors – but bitter substances are very healthy: they promote blood circulation and digestion, strengthen the immune system and stimulate fat metabolism in the liver and bile. Bitter substances are naturally contained in certain foods and can indirectly help with weight loss.

Why do we avoid bitter substances?

One reason why people do not like to eat bitter foods could be the evolutionary protective function: plants produce bitter substances to ward off predators. Bitter is therefore considered poisonous, even if this is not always true. In addition, many foods are heavily sweetened these days, making bitter tastes even more unpleasant for the human palate. The bitter is cultivated out of food – and many cooks also avoid it by cutting bitter plant parts out of vegetables. There is also something special about bitter that makes it different from other flavors. Unlike salt, for example, the amount of bitterness doesn’t matter: the brain perceives it as bad even in small doses.

Get used to the tasting step by step

We perceive bitterness particularly intensively because the taste receptors on the tongue react much more strongly to bitter than to a sweet stimulus, for example. A particularly large number of bitter receptors are located at the back of the tongue and function like the body’s own warning system. However, the perception of bitterness can be trained: the more often you try bitter things, the sooner you get used to them (mere exposure effect). Bitterness can slowly sneak into food and is then increasingly perceived as tasty.

Bitter substances in food

Bitter substances consist of very different chemical substances. Most are heat-stable – in the case of chicory, some of the bitter substances are only released during cooking. Bitter vegetables pair well with tomatoes, whose sweet and fruity acidity provides a good counterbalance to the bitterness. If you want to do something good for your liver, bile, stomach, intestines, and immune system, you should consume bitter substances several times a week. A particularly large number of these foods provide:

  • artichokes
  • Dandelions, especially the stalks
  • Radicchio, chicory, arugula
  • Coffee
  • Chocolate with the highest possible cocoa content

Bitter substances are also contained in:

  • Brussels sprouts, kale, fennel, lentils, kohlrabi, eggplant
  • citrus fruits
  • olives
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric, thyme, tarragon, cinnamon
  • Mustard
  • nettle
  • Green tea
  • beer (hops)

How do bitter substances affect the body?

Bitter substances have a positive effect on digestion and can also make heavy food more digestible. It is therefore recommended to eat bitter salads or bitter raw vegetables as a starter before hearty and greasy main dishes. For example, chicory contains the bitter substance inhibin, which stimulates the production of stomach acid and improves bile flow, which promotes fat digestion. Bitter substances can also contribute to improvement in the chronic inflammatory bowel disease Crohn’s disease. Bitter substances can also strengthen the immune system, reduce fever, and have a relaxing effect.

How do bitter substances affect digestion?

  • promote the flow of saliva
  • improve the production of gastric juice
  • increase the production of bile and thus promote fat digestion
  • some bitter substances lead to increased insulin production
  • stimulate intestinal activity
  • Bitter substances are also said to strengthen the immune system, reduce fever and have a relaxing effect.

Do bitter substances help you lose weight?

Bitter substances not only help to utilize the food better, but they also help to eat less – because bitter substances can suppress appetite: bitter substances dock to the intestinal cells, which produce a hormone, GLP-1. This endogenous hormone triggers a feeling of satiety in the brain. Many bitter substances, therefore, result in faster saturation. Bitter substances can also reduce the desire for sweets or dessert. Kiel researchers found that overweight people taste more bitter than lean people. Because everything tastes more bitter to them, they may tend to eat more high-energy sweet foods. In the study, nuclear spin examinations were even able to prove that changes in the brain areas of taste perception had occurred in overweight people.

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