Bitter is a term often used as a pejorative. People can be described as bitter and twisted, an unpleasant task leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, something disagreeable can be a bitter pill to swallow. Well it's time to banish the negative connotations of the word 'bitter'. I am a member of the BIG Brigade - 'Bitterness Is Good'. And it's not just me who thinks that - ask Mother Nature.
Consuming a diet that includes bitter food and drink is fundamental to human health. Bitterness triggers a cascade of neural and endocrine events called 'the bitter reflex'. When the tongue senses bitterness the hormone gastrin is released and starts the digestive process. Enzyme rich saliva flows and those enzymes convert starches in the food and drink into more easily digestible carbohydrates. Meanwhile in the stomach, hydrochloric acid is secreted so whatever is about to arrive through the oesophagus can be broken down to release vitamins and minerals. The small intestine gets to work by prompting the liver to release bile and the gall bladder to handle bile excretion. Bile assists the liver in breaking down fats and helps it to get rid of waste products. The pancreas is stimulated to produce digestive enzymes and insulin that regulates blood sugar. All that from a humble plate of salad leaves!
The trouble is that a generation of people (mostly in western countries) is growing up eating and drinking a diet low in bitterness. Processed food is packed with sugar and people used to a diet of sweet food and drink are averse to anything bitter. Cue a future health crisis and a time-bomb of disorders associated with poor digestion - auto-immune diseases, type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol, coeliac disease, asthma, allergies, colon cancer, and many others.
An easy way to introduce bitterness into the diet is to eat rocket, chicory, dandelion leaves, and radicchio. But arguably a more agreeable way is to drink an aperitif before a meal. Campari or Cynar and soda, a Martini heavy on the vermouth for those bitter botanicals, Pink gin (the pink colour comes from the addition of Angostura bitters), Absinthe and water (Absinthe contains bitter wormwood), a glass of India pale ale. And for non-alcoholic choices try peppermint, or chamomile tea. If they sound more like a night-cap then serve chilled with fresh lemon juice in a flute so drinking them is a ritual. The salivary glands are roused, the appetite is stimulated, and all those essential digestive functions start working.
My first choice of libation is beer. I relish the refreshing bitterness, the scrumptious flavours, the nutritional benefits, the fact that beer tends to be lower alcohol so I can drink a couple of pints without pickling my liver or falling over. One of the ingredients of beer is hops and those marvellous flowers contain bitter compounds. Lucky beer drinkers - they have a source of health enhancing bitterness in their favourite bevvy.
Membership of the BIG Brigade has responsibilities - to make a bitter aperitif a daily habit and to encourage friends and family to do the same. Your body will thank you.