Learning to like bitters: my guide!

Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction)
Ask Ali

11 September 2019

Why are bitter tastes so important?

Bitter tastes such as those found in an array of green vegetables have been somewhat lost from our diet these days. However, including sufficient bitter foods could help support a number of areas of our health including:

  • Healthy and varied eating habits
  • Healthy body weight
  • Healthy digestion

Throughout this blog, I run through some of the benefits of bitterness, as backed by research, and offer some top tips for incorporating bitter foods into your diet once more.

Are we scrimping on the bitterness?

Introducing plant-based foods to a diet is a common-sense approach to healthy eating, but unfortunately many people simply don't like the taste of vegetables; and bitter greens, in particular, aren't often a popular choice! This means that people often end up favouring sugary and sweet tastes instead but, worryingly, these are most likely to be detrimental to their health.

But hold up, let's give that broccoli a chance! Doing so regularly could actually make the whole experience easier - according to a new study from the University of Buffalo, regularly consuming bitter foods can actually alter the proteins in your saliva and ultimately change how we perceive the taste1, making the whole process of eating healthily much easier for us!

What sounds at first like a trick to get us eating more greens is actually a scientific matter based on specific proteins found in your saliva. These proteins affect the sense of taste, and diet composition, at least in part, determines their make-up in the first place. So, basically, the theory is that what you eat influences the unique pattern of proteins that make up your saliva and this, in turn, affects how you taste foods in the first place.1 Therefore, over time, we can influence how we taste foods.

How can adding more bitters improve our health?

1. It may help to put an end to fussy eating

Working backwards from the research, fussiness or disliking certain tastes could be down to lack of exposure to different tastes in the first place.

However, this is a vicious cycle we can hopefully break with a little bit of practice. The researchers from the study, as mentioned above, concluded that even if we don't like some bitter foods at first, we should stick with them: "If we can convince people to try broccoli, greens and bitter foods, they should know that, with repeated exposure, they'll taste better once they are able to regulate those salivary proteins," says researcher Torregrossa.

2. It could help encourage health body weight

Bitter foods tend to come in the form of green vegetables which are packed full of nutrients and fibre, plus they are relatively low in calories. Therefore, they're the very foods we need in copious supply in our diets in order to support a healthy weight!

This new research is intriguing in light of the fight against obesity as the over-consumption of high-fat and high-sugar processed foods is often thought to be at the root of the problem.
Through years of evolution we are hard-wired to prefer the taste of energy-dense fat and/or sugar-laden foods. Now that food is not in short supply and our needs are often more based around limiting our energy intake rather than maximising it, our liking for fat and sugar tastes is not so helpful. Consciously replacing some of these foods with bitter, fibre-full foods is a good step towards changing those troubling dietary patterns that are contributing to obesity.

The researchers explain that "... the variation around sweets is very small. Nearly everyone likes a cupcake, but the variation around liking broccoli is enormous!"

This research also helps explain why that variation with bitter food exists. As our exposure to bitter tastes decreases, so does our salivary response and our taste preferences. However, it also proves it isn't a lost cause – we can actually train ourselves back into liking bitter foods and, with any luck, "we can hopefully get more people to eat broccoli instead of cupcakes again!"1

3. Bitters help support your digestion

It's apparent the bitter elements of our diets have been somewhat lost. However, enjoying bitter foods will not only mean we can include a wider range of nutrient dense foods in our diet (which can have an array of potential benefits), and help support a healthy body weight as mentioned above, but actually bitterness is the key for supporting healthy digestion too.

We know that bitter tastes activate receptors in both the mouth and the stomach2 which, in turn, helps stimulate gastric acid secretions.2 Interestingly, although conventional medicine often suggests excess gastric acid may be problematic (based on the current extent of prescribed anti-acid medications!), we know, in fact, that we need sufficient stomach acid in order to digest components of our food properly including protein. This allows us to release, absorb and generally make use of the the nutrients from our food; plus, it keeps stomach bugs at bay.

Therefore, by introducing more bitter elements to your diet, this could offer some immediate benefits (hence why they've been used traditionally as 'aperitifs'), including improvement of symptoms of fullness, indigestion or bloating, for example.

However, more bitterness could potentially be linked to a whole host of other, longer-term benefits. This includes helping to manage more chronic digestive issues such as those associated with IBS, or more general health such as maintaining bone health as a result of the effects it could have on nutrient absorption.

How can we ensure we get more?

1. Remember that bitter foods will eventually taste good!

Although the study was based on an animal model, it highlights nicely that with repeated exposure to bitter foods, the bitterness eventually became less apparent; so it does suggest we may be able to better tolerate bitter foods as time goes on, even if the taste isn't preferable at first.

But, is there a set number of tries?

Whilst the researchers conclude that "Our data doesn't provide a set number, such as 12 servings of broccoli" they do follow up with some reassurances: "for people who avoid these foods because of their bitterness, but would like to include them in their diet, they should know their tastes will eventually change."

So, get trying that broccoli and don't be put off by assuming you don't like the taste initially!

2. Limit the sweetness as well as upping the bitterness

As well as the suggestion that we'll grow to tolerate bitter tastes, did you know that by gradually limiting your intake of sugar, your taste buds can also readjust in this respect?

This means that over time you'll hopefully need less sugar to still be satisfied – even with just a slight hint of sweetness! Put this theory to the test by gradually limiting any sugar you add to teas or coffees. You'll find you're gradually able to add less and less until you'll eventually wonder how you ever even enjoyed something so sweet!

3. Remember that gradual changes are all that's needed

Whether your focus is increasing bitter elements of your diet or decreasing sweetness, we're not generally up for any drastic changes here at A.Vogel. Even small changes can make a big difference to how we look and feel. So, try out a new food each week and see how you get on adding some new flavours to your meals.

In terms of bitter foods, some popular ingredients to get experimenting with include the following:

  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Asparagus
  • Kale
  • Radishes
  • Olives
  • Artichokes
  • Aubergine
  • Grapefruit
  • Sesame seeds
  • Rocket
  • Chicory
  • Cacao (raw chocolate)
  • Green tea
  • Dill

To help incorporate these elements into your diet, below I've listed some bitter recipe inspiration:

Creamy Cauliflower & Broccoli Soup
Easy Broccoli Stir-fry with Sesame & Chilli
Curried Kale
Creamy Beetroot & Radish Soup with Dill
Spiced Cauliflower & Carrot Salad

4. Include remedies as well as foods

Whilst the ideal is to include plenty of bitter foods in our diet, if you're struggling to up your intake, a digestive bitters remedy such as our Yarrow Complex can be a quick and convenient way to get you more familiar with bitter tastes.

My Top Tip:

If you struggle to get enough bitter tastes in the form of foods, why not try out adding some Yarrow bitters to your regime. Take these 5-10 minutes before your meals, 3 times daily, for best results.

"I suffer a lot from acid reflux and heartburn, this helped to make me feel better and calmed everything down. Would highly recommend."


Read what other people are saying about Yarrow.


1. https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article-abstract/44/6/379/5479517
2. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6260

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