“It’s about re-educating your taste buds and adding a depth and complexity to what we’re eating.”
One of jiaogulan’s greatest virtues is the bitter component that works as a counterpoint to its sweetness.
For the most part, bitterness has been shunned from the popular Western diet in favor of anything that appeals to our sweet-tooth.
The results are emphatically not sweet, however: overconsumption of sugar can often lead to diabetes and liver disease while also hijacking our cravings, creating a vicious cycle in which we get high from sugar, crash, then crave more. (1)
That kind of lifestyle is, ahem, a truly bitter pill to swallow!
Paracelsus, the influential Swiss physician of the 16th century, was well-known for encouraging the consumption of herbal elixirs known as “bitters”. (2) Today, researchers are uncovering more and more reasons for bitter foods and bitter herbs to be a bigger part of the modern diet.
Bitter foods detoxify the liver and keep it running steadily at optimum levels.
They also help produce stomach acid, which aids in digestion and increases the absorption of vitamins. (2)
Moreover, a consistent diet of bitter foods can reduce our cravings for all those sugary snacks that somehow end up on our grocery bill. (3)
Now that’s a sweet deal!
So, you might be wondering, where’s a good place to start with bitter foods?
When eaten in its raw form, nature’s serving of chocolate practically makes love to your health.
The Incas famously revered the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree as the “Food of the Gods”, and for good reason! (4)
Chocolate is often extolled for its numerous benefits, but because of the manner in which cacao beans are processed to create cocoa, little of those benefits survive the processing plants. (5)
They vanish the moment the beans are separated from their bitterness...
Eating raw cacao powder (or cacao nibs) is simply one of the best things you can do for your body.
This superfood packs more antioxidant potency than blueberries, cranberries, and acai! (6) Cacao also eases digestion, protects the heart, lowers blood pressure, increases cognitive function, prevents aging and—to really sweeten the deal—elevates your mood due to the presence of anandamide, known as the bliss molecule. (7)
Need we say more?
One of many bitter, leafy greens with sensational benefits for the body, kale is a produce-section juggernaut.
There’s seemingly nothing kale can’t do for us.
In fact, the ancient Greeks even used it as an antidote for drunkenness. (8) (Their festivals of depravity must’ve made the farmer’s market look like a fruit stand!)
With its nutritional excellence a subject of so many studies, kale has today become something of a symbol for the conscious lifestyle.
In this case, however, the hype is to be believed!
Kale’s bitterness activates the taste buds associated with the production of bile and enzymes, triggering a digestive sequence that allows the body to absorb the nutrients in food more naturally. (9)
It also bears the gifts of vitamins K, C and A, along with vital minerals like magnesium in spades.
Kale’s high fiber content ensures speedy elimination of waste, while its beta-carotene promotes clear and radiant skin. (9)
Don’t let that kale go stale!
You might be surprised to know that grapefruit is a relative newcomer to the biome: it’s the love-child from a cross between the Javanese pomelo and the East Asian sweet orange, an experiment that occurred in the 18th century. (10)
Ever since its invention, people have been trying to come up with ways to temper its bitterness.
One of the ways this often happens is by a “de-bittering” process, which can strip the grapefruit of some of the best things it has to offer! (10)
A common casualty of this kind of tampering is the bitter naringin, a phytochemical found in grapefruit which studies have shown has the ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and operate as a powerful antioxidant. (10)
This wonder-fruit’s high contents of fiber and potassium have been linked to keeping the heart healthy and lowering blood pressure, while its ample servings of vitamins A and C also keep the immune system vibrant and happy. (11)
Of the miracles of peppermint, Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder had this to say: “The very smell of it alone refreshes and recovers the spirit.” (12)
The ancient Egyptians were apparently no strangers to peppermint, either, as peppermint leaves carbon dated to 1,000 BC have been found in the pyramids.
Perhaps the most famous progeny of the mint family, peppermint is a hybrid of Water Mint and Spearmint and is renowned both as a vivifying tea (it also pairs wonderfully with jiaogulan) and stimulating essential oil.
As is the case with most bitter herbs, peppermint is especially effective in treating digestive issues, including indigestion, stomach ache, diarrhea and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. (13)
It’s also enjoyed popular use as a tonic for pain- and stress-relief, as even a couple of peppermint oil drops in your bath can allay both muscle soreness and anxiety. And by the way, do you get the sense you’re forgetting something?
If so, just a whiff of peppermint has been shown to jog the memory! (14)
The Indian subcontinent is known for its plethora of spiritual deities, and the neem tree may as well be one of them!
It’s been revered for its curative properties for thousands of years throughout India and even came to be known as the “Village Pharmacy” for its wide variety of uses. (15) The word “neem” comes from the Sanskrit “nimba”, or “bestower of good health”.
Remarkably, 75% of all Ayurvedic preparations include some form of neem! (16)
Much of the neem tree’s magic can be traced to the fact that it contains 135 biologically active compounds, which makes it a highly complex and thus extremely versatile natural medicine. (17)
Neem is most widely valued for its anti-aging properties, as its antioxidants preserve the skin’s glow while also curing inflammation and other skin ailments.
Its benefits also extend to oral hygiene, dandruff, bacterial infections, wound healing and reproductive health. (18)
There are so many reasons to incorporate bitter foods and herbs into your diet.
According to some, eating bitter things is even a sign of cultural sophistication!(19) But as we’ve covered here, the benefits extend well beyond trivial social merits.
Bitter foods enhance the absorption of nutrients and replenish your macrobiome with friendly bacteria. (20)
And since we’re often slaves to our cravings, it’s amazing to know that a constant diet of foods like arugula or cacao can effectively liberate us from consuming things we don’t need.
Perhaps there’s a certain pleasure to be found in culinary bitterness; besides, what is sweetness without its opposite?