They purify, have diuretic effects, can control hunger and protect against oxidative stress. The expert: let’s re-educate ourselves to the bitter taste
Chicory, radicchio, Belgian salad, radishes, spices, tea, coffee: these are just some of the bitter foods that we should bring to the table more often, as they are capable of bringing countless health benefits.
A taste that, however, seems to have been forgotten by now. “The food industry – commented prof. Angela Bassoli, associate professor of organic chemistry and the molecular basis of taste, University of Milan, on the occasion of the ‘Panorama Diabete’ congress of the Italian Society of Diabetology – alters the taste of foods to make them more ‘attractive’, removing the bitterness or ‘acid. Once our grandmothers ate many bitter wild herbs; today we have left them aside and instead consume vegetables obtained through crossbreeding, with genetic selection, which are less and less bitter. The industry also modifies the taste of foods through additives, for example with sweeteners which certainly did not reduce obesity or diabetes. This is because they are a fake, they don’t give us sugar, but our receptor gets used to the sweet and makes us want it more and more “.
The benefits of bitter foods
The presence of bitter taste receptors seems to play an important role in the detection of dangerous compounds: the bitter taste, in fact, can cause the refusal of food or drink and, if very intense, stimulates the gag reflex. A protective reflex that can therefore protect us from potential toxic substances.
They have a protective action on DNA
However, there are also other molecules – such as polyphenols – which have a bitter taste, but which are endowed with a precious protective action on our genetic heritage, protecting us from oxidative stress and cardiovascular diseases. Recent research confirms that in the intestine the bitter receptors have a priority role: just think that about thirty genes have been identified for the management of bitter molecules, while only one gene has been identified for sweet.
They help keep food cravings in check
Furthermore, the bitter taste is able to regulate the appetite and the feeling of satiety thanks to the secretion of cholecystokinin (CCK), a hormone that determines a sense of satiety and inhibitory reflexes of gastric emptying through the stimulation of the vagus nerve, which connects the intestine to the brain and vice versa. Not surprisingly, ending the meal with a drink or other food with a bitter taste is an ancient and widespread choice in every culture. The bitter taste of food, therefore, through the release of endogenous substances and hormonal factors, can contribute to eating less during the meal.
They facilitate the expulsion of gases
Bitter foods have a carminative action, proving useful for all people suffering from meteorism and swelling of the stomach and intestines, as they facilitate the expulsion of excess gas.
Finally, they have purifying and diuretic properties.
What are bitter foods
Polyphenols are contained for example in bitter vegetables such as chicory, watercress, fennel, radicchio, bitter gourd, soncino, Belgian salad, green cabbage, radishes, endive, rocket, dandelion …
Aromatic herbs and spices such as thyme, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, juniper berries, licorice, bitter fennel, anise, tea (as well as coffee) also contain bitter substances.
How to re-educate yourself to the bitter taste
“Nature – comments Professor Bassoli – certainly could not foresee that one day we would have all these ‘easy’ and low-cost sources of energy available”. And to get out of this ‘tyranny’ of the sweet and rebalance our food preferences, the only solution is to relearn to listen to our receptors.
“But to do this – explains Bassoli – we have to ‘train them’, because our diet, by exposing ourselves only to certain types of flavors, has made us put the others aside. We still have 25 different sensors supplied to appreciate the many nuances of the ‘bitter’ taste (as opposed to just a single sensor for the ‘sweet’ taste), but we have not used them for too long, they are ‘atrophied’ and therefore need to be retrained. As? Starting to eat things a little bit more bitter (vegetables, spices, coffee without sugar) than we usually do. If I gradually manage to achieve these flavors, my receptors gradually adapt ”.
And in this way there are two advantages. “The first – explains the professor – is direct: I start eating things that are good for me, for example vegetables that contain more flavonoids, more polyphenols, protective antioxidants against cancer and cardio-metabolic diseases”. But there is also an indirect advantage. “If I get used to a slightly more bitter and less sweet taste – explains the teacher – I automatically consume less sugar”.