July 11, 2023

Health Benefits and Fascinating Properties of Bitters

All about bitter phytochemicals and where to get them

Bitter phytochemicals are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in various plants. Actually, bitters are the plant’s defence mechanism, keeping animals and insects from eating them since they taste that way.

Photo by Megha Lad

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How can I get bitter phytochemicals?

Most people may not like their taste, since they offer an equally bitter flavour to food and drinks.

Cruciferous veggies: Vegetables like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower contain bitter compounds called glucosinolates. The bitters in there need some time to develop, so cutting them half an hour to an hour before cooking will make them even more bitter.

Green tea: Drinking green tea regularly is a great way to incorporate these beneficial bitter compounds into your diet. Green tea contains catechins, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (also known as EGCG), which are bitter-tasting flavonoids.

Citrus fruits: Citrus fruit like grapefruit, oranges or lemons also contain flavonoids, including naringin and hesperidin. Those compounds are mostly concentrated in the peel and the pit of such fruit. Using the peel in tiny flakes for garnish is a good idea.

Extra virgin olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil, particularly the high-quality cold-pressed varieties, contains bitter phenolic compounds, including oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol.

Turmeric: Turmeric is a spice known for its bright yellow colour and bitter taste. It contains a compound called curcumin, which has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is widely studied for its potential health benefits.

All of the food mentioned above contain bitter phytochemicals with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Human health & bitter compounds

Bitters cannot be universally classified as healthy or unhealthy, as their effects can vary depending on factors such as the specific compound, dosage, individual health status, and overall dietary context. Even though bitters are not essential nutrients, they do offer great health benefits for human health.

Bitter phytochemicals aid cells in the human body by providing antioxidant protection, reducing inflammation, supporting detoxification processes, enhancing the immune system, and potentially combatting cancer cells.

Side Note: Following a diet abundant in vegetables and fruit has been associated with decreased incidences of cancer and coronary heart disease.

Where can bitter phytochemicals be found?

  • Allicin: A sulfur-containing compound in garlic that gives it a bitter flavour when raw.
  • Anthocyanins: These are bitter-tasting pigments found in brightly coloured fruits like berries, cherries, and grapes.
  • Caffeine: Found in coffee, tea, cocoa, and some soft drinks.
  • Curcumin: A compound in turmeric that contributes to its bitter taste.
  • Flavonoids (such as quercetin, catechins, and naringin): Found in berries, citrus fruits, apples, onions, broccoli, kale, soybeans, green tea, and dark chocolate.
  • Isothiocyanates: Bitter compounds found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Limonene: A terpene compound found in citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes.
  • Nicotine: Nicotine is generally considered an unhealthy phytochemical due to its addictive nature and negative health effects. It is a natural compound found in tobacco plants and is primarily associated with the harmful effects of smoking and tobacco use, but it is bitter nonetheless.
  • Quinine: Naturally occurring in cinchona bark and used as a flavouring in tonic water.
  • Tannins: Tannins are found mainly in black tea leaves, coffee, and fruit like grapes.
Photo by Vie Studio

Bitter phytochemicals in chocolate!

Yes, some studies suggest that catechins (a type of bitter phytochemical) may be what provides its original bitter taste. Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, 70% or more, contains flavonoids, including a subclass called flavonols.

Cocoa beans naturally contain caffeine, which also tastes bitter.

Flavanols, such as epicatechin, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Bitter phytochemicals and their antioxidant properties

Antioxidants are substances that help protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause oxidative stress and contribute to various diseases and aging processes.

Bitters can directly interact with, and neutralise, free radicals, preventing those radicals from causing damage to cellular components like DNA, proteins and lipids.

They often work synergistically to enhance their antioxidant activity. The combination of different phytochemicals in plant-based foods can have a greater overall antioxidant effect compared to individual compounds.

Polyphenols, a chemical compound found in plants, can help protect against oxidative damage by inhibiting the formation of free radicals, reducing inflammation, and promoting cellular health.

Flavonoids are recognised as one of the most significant and extensively studied classes of polyphenols. These, in particular, can scavenge free radicals, neutralising their harmful effects and reducing oxidative stress in the body. They are excellent for cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of certain types of cancer, and improving cognitive function. They are also known to have antimicrobial properties and may contribute to overall immune system support.

Bitter phytochemicals may generally help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders. Antioxidants also play a role in supporting the immune system and promoting overall well-being, like mentioned above.

Anti-inflammatory properties

Bitter phytochemicals have been found to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which means they can help reduce inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is a natural response by the immune system to protect against injury or infection. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of various diseases.

Some antioxidants found in bitter phytochemicals, can interfere with these pathways, inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators like cytokines and prostaglandins. By modulating these inflammatory pathways, antioxidants can help suppress inflammation.

This recent study found that the more bitter the phytochemical, the better the anti-inflammatory activity.

Do I need to supplement?

The food sources mentioned can provide a good amount of bitter phytochemicals as part of a balanced and diverse diet.

Ideally, obtain your nutrients and phytochemicals from whole foods rather than relying on supplements. However, I sometimes feel like a boost is needed in my diet.

Depending on your individual circumstances, dietary preferences, and health goals, you can also try supplementing with additional sources.

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