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Articles - A Healthy Diet:

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Bitter – not popular but very healthy

Brussels sprouts? Chicory? Endive lettuce? Not only children, but also many adults leave them on their plates because of the bitter taste. But precisely these substances and the ones in grapefruit and some apples are really good for you. They promote fat metabolism, stimulate your liver and gall bladder and promote good digestion.

Inborn dislike

The first time a child takes a sip of coffee it will in all likelihood pull a face. There’s even a word for it: gustofacial reflex. The child has to “learn” to accept and maybe eventually to like the bitter flavours. Human evolution is responsible for this reaction; it has made us favour the nutrients we need most. Sweet things supply energy. Meat and fish, which we taste with taste buds on our tongues that have developed to taste “umami”, supply important proteins. Our ancestors  learnt that things which tasted bitter could kill you. Sour was another taste to avoid – sour fruits were probably unripe and could cause stomach upsets.

New cultivars loose vital benefits

Today, bitter and sour are no longer necessarily warning signs, but people’s taste preferences don’t seem to have changed much. Especially in Western industrialised societies, many people still prefer foods that taste sweet or salty. That’s why processed foods tend to contain a lot of flavours and additives that cater to these preferences. Manufacturers also add substances that cover the bitterness of other ingredients. The agricultural industry has taken all this to heart; for years funding has been poured into breeding vegetables and fruits – from chicory and broccoli to apples and grapefruit – that contain fewer and fewer bitter substances and therefore appeal to more consumers. On the other hand, these new cultivars have lost some of their key functions.

Health benefits of bitter

The bitter substances in an artichoke stimulate digestion and have a positive effect on your liver and gall bladder. The key substance is cynarin. The bitter taste in salad ingredients like nettles, dandelion and rocket is due to the terpenes and polyphenols they contain. As soon as they’re in your mouth they start to stimulate saliva production and trigger your digestive system to produce more gastric acid. This means you’ll be better able to digest any fatty substances you’re eating. The same applies to chicory where the bitter substance intybin stimulates the stomach and promotes secretion of gastric juices and bile, all of which improve your ability to digest fats.

Research confirms health benefits

Some bitter substances could even protect you from intestinal cancer. Scientists from Yale University researched the correlation between a preference for bitter substances and the occurrence of intestinal polyps in older men. Polyps are considered to be forerunners of intestinal cancer. Another benefit could be the ability of bitter substances to send a message to your brain that puts the brakes your desire to keep eating. This would have been important for prehistoric people to avoid poisonous foodstuffs. In 2008, scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey found that women who had difficulty in tasting bitter flavours were six times as likely to be overweight.

Old varieties of fruits and vegetables
are often healthier

It seems clear that welcoming bitter flavours and eating bitter-tasting foodstuffs can do you good. A good place to start looking for food like this is farmers’ markets and local small-scale growers. If you grow your own vegetables, try seed exchanges or specialist and heritage seed suppliers to find seeds of old varieties. Experts also recommend choosing plants that are as close as possible to their wild form – like dandelion or spring onions. Find the right recipe and you’ll start to enjoy those bitter flavours that are so good for you.


Source: Stiftung Warentest