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The Science of the Bitter Taste

By Angela Denly 6 August 2018 453 Views No comments

The science of taste: Bitter

What is bitterness and why is it so challenging?

In her book, Bitter, Jennifer McLagan refers to bitterness as the world’s most dangerous flavour. Along with sweet, sour, salty, and umami, bitter is one of the five primary tastes (with some arguing that fat can be considered a sixth taste). Let’s take a look in more detail at bitterness.

Why is bitterness so challenging?

We are all born with an aversion to bitter tastes and hardwired to dislike bitter on its own – this is because many poisons are bitter. Just watch a baby’s reaction to bitter foods to see this aversion in action.

But as we age, we learn that not all bitter foods are dangerous, and some are actually pleasurable. Think about coffee, chocolate and beer – all bitter foods that we actively seek out and enjoy.

Bitter foods can also be incredibly nutritious, such as many bitter salad greens like rocket, dandelion, radicchio and frisée, as well as vegetables like Brussels sprouts, turnips and white asparagus. Bitterness is also found in many nuts and citrus, frequently in the pith, but also in the case of grapefruit especially, in the flesh itself.

Why bitterness is important?

On its own, bitterness can sometimes be unpleasant or overwhelming for some people, but when combined with other taste elements, it can provide a necessary balance. Seville orange marmalade for example needs the bitterness to even out what would otherwise be overwhelming sweetness.

Bitter compounds can also help to stimulate digestion, triggering the release of digestive enzymes and bile acids. Bitter foods can also help to moderate hunger and control blood sugar levels.

Push away those bitter tears

So how can you enjoy bitterness more with everyday foods? Here’s a few ideas to get you started.

  • Enjoy chocolate? Why not try gradually increasing the cocoa content of your sneaky treat. Start with something like 55% cocoa and work your way up to 90% as you get more accustomed to bitter flavours. As a bonus, higher cocoa content means less refined sugar.
  • Increase your intake of dark leafy greens for a dose of bitter plus a heap of valuable antioxidants to keep your body in tip-top condition.
  • Change your latte with two sugars to a cold-brew black coffee for a softer taste, then start experimenting with different coffee blends to see if you can find something you enjoy without milk and sugar.
  • Experiment with bitter salad greens, like endive and radicchio.
  • Remember that cooking can reduce bitterness, so play around with different recipes to find new ways of introducing more bitter foods into your diet.

Over to you

Do you enjoy bitter foods? Or is it a challenging taste for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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