We have alcohol to thank for the one botanical medicine that’s ubiquitous in our nation’s consciousness. Bitters, most commonly enjoyed as delicious additions to cocktails, are also powerful digestive aids whose flavor has unfortunately dropped out of the standard culinary palette here in the US for over a century. But, given the mainstream’s rising interest in health and wellness, bitters are making a comeback as more than just cocktail flavorings.
The herbal apothecary Urban Moonshine is bringing bitters to the next level through their line of organic, Vermont farm-sourced digestive bitters, and their book DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor, a guide to creating classic and innovative bitters that expand on the traditional flavors and treat a wide range of conditions.
I recently spoke with Urban Moonshine’s chief herbalist Guido Mase about how bitters help us digest better, why the bitter flavor fell out of favor in the 20th century, the many ways bitters can be enjoyed beyond alcohol drinks, and more.
What’s the definition of a bitter?
Anything that tastes bitter, which by extension means it stimulates our bitter taste receptors, is technically an herbal bitter. Tons of stuff in nature, like dandelion root, the bark of most trees, and most fruits and vegetables, especially the ones we haven’t hybridized, have an elements of bitterness to them.
Digestive bitters have a more specific definition in both the American historical context and globally. They’re combinations of bitter tasting herbs, usually steeped in alcohol and added to cocktails or used as tonics.
What is it about bitters that facilitates healthier and more efficient digestion?
The bitter flavor is usually a marker of phytonutrient density. The more bitter something tastes usually correlates to how rich it is in phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are secondary plant metabolizers that plants often produce as deterrents to keep themselves from being eaten by insects. To us, bitterness is a signal of potential poison or toxicity, so it makes sense that they would taste bitter. Fortunately, we’ve evolved al over that detoxifies these phytonutrients really well, so they end up being helpful to us. They encourage proper liver function, generally improve nervous system function and regeneration, and they seem to also be important in protecting the cardiovascular system, the heart, and the blood vessels.
That said, digestive bitters help with digestion not exactly because of their phytonutrient content but because those bitter tasting phytonutrients activate the bitter taste receptors found on our tongue, throughout our gut, and many other places in the body too. When they’re activated through a combination of direct hormone signaling and nerve reflex (the bitterness stimulates the nerve, which goes to the taste center of the brain and reflexes, back down to the digestive tract), the nerve increases the secretion of saliva, pancreatic enzymes, and all the juices in the gastrointestinal tract so the food can be broken down more completely. It also regulates the speed at which food leaves the stomach. The food stays in the stomach longer and can get broken down more completely before getting into the intestinal phase of digestion. This combination of sitting in the stomach longer and digestive juices leads to less fermentation, therefore less bloating, less cramping, and overall better absorption and assimilation. The liver also wakes up a little bit and improves detoxification and biosecretion. Bitters also regulate lower bowel function a little bit, in large part because the bile that the liver makes is our own natural laxative.
How can we better acquaint our taste palette with the bitter taste?
The more you taste a bitter, the more bitter taste receptors you make. Those goes back to the idea of phytonutrients as a poison protection. If the body is exposed to a lot of phytonutrients and bitter tasting substances, it thinks its in an environment where there’ll be more of a challenge to its liver and digestion, and so it will start producing more bitter taste receptors. There’s a psychological aspect too — the more you taste it, the more subtle and nuanced your appreciation becomes. It’s similar to coffee. Kids are are repulsed by coffee, but as we get older that bitter taste becomes enjoyable.
How do bitters affect our eating habits?
They’re fantastic at curbing a sweet tooth and reducing over eating. Clinical research shows that when people take bitters, they consume somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of food. Part of the reason is when the bitter taste receptors are stimulated further down the gastrointestinal tract, they secrete hormones into the blood stream that stimulate feelings of fullness and satiety. If you’re feeling like you have low blood sugar and a sugar craving, tasting something bitter tricots the body into thinking its eating. You still need to eat eventually, but the bitters will get you off that craving ledge for at least 20 minutes or so.
Why are bitters not as prevalent today in culinary traditions outside of alcoholic drinks?
There’s still a cultural tradition of bitters in many places in the world, like Italy, France, India, and China, particularly in Chinese medicine. Most healing and cuisine systems that have stayed intact up until today still incorporate bitters. America doesn’t have an intact cuisine. It’s been largely cobbled together by a range of different sources, especially in the late 20th century. It’s converged towards a fast food, super-size me culture that’s completely devoid of bitterness.
My contention is that we’ve been removing bitterness from our fruits and vegetables for a very long time by breeding them. It kicked into high gear at the turn of the 19th century at the start of the Industrial Revolution. We were able to do things like mill and refine grain and remove the bitter taste, and start cranking out sugar cane production. It gave us access to a huge amount of refined carbs. People no longer had to be sparing with sweetness because it was available everywhere. Tons of sweets and no bitters is a lethal combination, and it’s in the US that bitterness was most removed.
In his book End of Overeating, David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, talks about how the food industry identified the bliss point of humans’ drug-liker sward from food as the right proportion of sweet, salty, and fatty, and the complete avoidance of bitterness.
I’m born and raised in Italy, so bitters are a part of my culture. It’s neat to see them so sought after in the US now. The one thread of botanical medicine left in US culture is bitters. It’s the one thing people know even if they don’t know anything about herbalism, because they know they like it in their Manhattan or Old-Fashioned. There’s a cultural memory that comes from the cocktail industry. It’s exciting to think of them as a gateway for folks to get into plant medicine.
Bitters are classically considered remedies for the digestive tract, such as heartburn, gas, and bloating. In DIY Bitters, that idea is expanded. If you’re steeping herbs in alcohol anyway, lets go beyond that and use herbs that are medicinal for other conditions too. We talk about herbs that strengthen immune function, help with cardiovascular diseases, good for chest colds, reducing fever. Herbs can be used for a range of different conditions and also are incredibly tonic, so they can help build resiliency over time and improve the body’s ability to withstand disease and stress. In “DIY Bitters” people can read about those specific medicinal applications on a case by case basis for each herb or recipe.
How do you recommend people use bitters to get the most out of their health benefits?
The easiest way is to use them directly on the tongue with spray, or mix with water around meal time. That’s mostly for digestive complaints with your classic bitters. For those who want to avoid alcohol, there are a couple different recipes in the book that grind these bitter herbs into powder and mix them with a little honey to make them into a little pea-sized pastille you can chew and allow the flavors to expand in your mouth and develop in your palette. These would be used around meal time too.
With some of the more innovative recipes that go beyond the traditional bitter template, you can take those with some sparkling water in the morning, you can take them as an alternative to a cocktail when you’re preparing dinner or going out. These can be anything from blended herbal powders to alcohol-based extracts that you can take half an ounce to an ounce of at a time for a powerful, altering effect.
And can these bitters recipes be state-changing?