Bring holiday indulgence to its knees with digestive bitters.
Concentrated botanical mixtures called digestive bitters can help you to get through the season’s heavy meals with a more efficient metabolism. They may even result in you eating less than you normally would, you know, no 6th trip to the buffet. And at this time of year, we could use all the digestive help we can get!
Digestive Bitters History
Like most things concerning lifestyle, when in doubt, take a cue from the French. They start their meals with an apéritif, often an Angostura bitter, which is a botanically-infused alcoholic mixture made of water, alcohol, herbs, and spices. The goal is simple: to jumpstart the digestive system by stimulating the salivary glands and kicking the appetite into full gear. They also top off their meals with a bitter digestif, often containing carminative (gas-busting) herbs, which, as its namesake would suggest, is also used to aid digestion. The alcohol in bitters acts as a solvent and natural preservative, giving bitters years of shelf life without refrigeration.
But don’t just take it from the French, bitters are a common fixture in many food cultures around the world, such as in Ghana, Italy, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, and Chile. Their popularity comes as no surprise – bitters date back as far as ancient Egyptian times, when medicinal herbs were infused into jars of wine. In the 19th century, the Brits added herbal bitters to Canary wine and their popularity soon rose in the American colonies. In 1842, a German physicist invented Angostura bitters, which were mostly geared towards fighting off seasickness and treating stomach problems. The New Orleans-founded Peychaud’s bitters also became popular during this time, as did a variety of orange bitters. Because of the long history of bitters, certain bottles have reached collectible status and today run for tens of thousands of dollars.
So what makes digestive bitters so great to have stood the test of time? They work.
How Digestive Bitters Work
Scientists discovered that bitter taste receptors are not only relegated to the tongue but also distributed throughout the stomach, intestines, and pancreas as well as in the body’s airways. When your tongue comes into contact with bitters, your taste buds begin to communicate with your brain, telling it to activate your gastrointestinal system and release the hormone gastrin. Gastrin raises the levels of gastric acid, bile flow, and other secretions along your digestive tract. Your entire digestive system is in on the process, not just your taste buds!
Belgian researchers found that bitter-tasting compounds that reached the stomach of mice triggered the eating impulse but somehow decreased food intake after 30 minutes. The bitter compounds provided a prolonged sense of fullness or satiety. Researchers associated this response with the system’s attempt to prevent the ingestion of “toxic” food.
Jovial King, founder of the organic digestive bitters and herbal tonics company Urban Moonshine, further explains this response, “The flavor of bitterness awakens our poison protection system. The body says, ‘Wow that’s a strong flavor! Could it be hazardous? Poisonous? Everyone out of bed! Wake up, something is happening!’ It brings the body online and ready to do a good job breaking down what could be a possibly hazardous food. That nudge turns on and optimizes digestive function and improves our ability to break the food down and absorb the nutrients with less digestive drama. Good digesting is all about increasing juiciness in the gut.” I’m sold.
How to Take Digestive Bitters
There are several ways to go about incorporating bitters into your life. You can enjoy a bitter apéritif or digestif before and/or after meals and even add bitters to your after-work or weekend cocktail.
Another great and not-so-boozy way to enjoy bitters is to dilute a small amount of bitters tincture in water and drink it or place a few drops of herbal bitters tonics at the back of your tongue (where the bitter taste receptors are) prior to eating. Instead of making your own bitters, which can be exhausting if you don’t have access to the often elusive ingredients, turn to the many companies now offering bitters commercially.
Urban Moonshine blends a variety of organic, locally-sourced herbs into a digestive bitters tonic. King suggests taking digestive bitters before and after meals. She elaborates, “If you’re having a major sugar craving reach for a little bitter! It’s actually much better to take them straight—you really want to taste the bitterness. As soon as the flavor hits the tongue the body starts preparing for the incoming meal. It is certainly a nice ritual to add bitters to some sparking water and sip before or after. I would definitely encourage that, and it will work, but I personally want the straight bitter flavor – it goes right to the brain and gut!” Urban Moonshine even has season-appropriate maple digestive bitters and citrus digestive bitters.
Other companies selling digestive bitters include Avena Botanicals, Herb Pharm, Maria Treben’s Authentic Swedish Bitters, and Wise Woman Herbals.
If you want to stick to whole foods, the true bitter flavor is enjoyed in only a few common foods, such as greens (particularly dandelion and arugula), coffee, hops, olives, and dark chocolate. However, to make up for the general lack of bitter flavors in most of our diets, it’s a good idea to use a supplemental herbal tonic or tincture.
Digestive Bitters and Controversy
Unfortunately for such herbal tonic and bitters companies, the same FDA regulations apply to them as they do to blatantly harmful, artificial drugs on the market. And the same taboo surrounding alternative lifestyle and dietary products is not only within the government but also among the customer base. Urban Moonshine quickly recognized the distrust in people towards herbal tonics, so the company gained footing in the market by selling bitters to bars and cocktail enthusiasts. Later, they widened their breach and are steadfastly pushing their tonics and the incredible benefits therein on the masses.
However, this has not come without controversy. The FDA has made it difficult for companies like Urban Moonshine to pass stringent assessments, almost to the point of shutting the botanical bitters company down. Some $80,000 later, King and her team have restructured their company so that it fulfills the FDA’s guidelines. Meanwhile, the products continue to be as pure, simple, and revered as ever, even if they’re strapped to pharmaceutical industry-considerate and overall close-minded regulations.
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Multigenerational Family Enjoying Christmas Dinner from Shutterstock