Aversion to bitter, a survival instinct?
If, when you were younger, endives, grapefruit or even coffee did not find favor with your eyes (or your taste buds), this is not simply a matter of your taste preferences. According to a study*, the aversion to bitter taste is an instinctive inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Since bitter flavors are often associated with toxic plants in nature, over the course of evolution, humans would have developed a natural aversion to bitter tastes to avoid the consumption of harmful plants or substances. This bitterness depends on the alkaloids present in these plants, the molecules used by them to protect themselves against attackers. The presence of substances such as cyanide can make these alkaloids toxic to organisms that consume them.
Taste perception can vary due to genetic and environmental factors. Some people have a greater tolerance or even a preference for bitter flavors, while others are more sensitive to these tastes. Taste preferences are also influenced by culture and dietary education.
Nutritional Benefits of Bitter Foods
If the aversion to bitter taste could once have been beneficial for human evolution, today it is not so simple. Indeed, the bitter flavor, when present in small quantities, has undeniable nutritional benefits. Bitter plants, in particular, contain various substances, including sesquiterpene lactones and phenolic compounds, which are found in particular in chicory and endive. The latter have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and play a crucial role in the proper functioning of the immune system, in the prevention of cancers and chronic non-communicable diseases. Bitter foods also stimulate the production of saliva and gastric juices and promote better digestion.
Like Dry January, be aware that certain bitter foods, rich in phytochemical compounds, support liver detoxification. Very good reasons to start loving bitterness.
Learn to love bitter
The less we like a flavor, the more we avoid it and therefore prevent our palate from getting used to it and appreciating it more. To learn to love bitter taste, start by gradually introducing bitter foods into your diet, for example, slightly bitter vegetables like watercress or artichoke. Combine bitter foods with sweeter or sour flavors. An endive salad garnished with citrus fruits is a very good example.
Also experiment with different preparation and seasoning methods. In particular, there are tips for making foods less bitter. Endive, for example, can be cooked with a splash of milk or with a potato cut in half.
For bitter drinks like coffee or black tea, start with less brewed versions and gradually increase the intensity to get your palate used to it. Bitter cocktails, consumed in moderation of course, such as the Spritz or the Gin Tonic, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, are another way to appreciate bitterness more. This recent preference is manifested by the reduction of sweet syrups in favor of bitter spirits such as vermouth, Campari or other liqueurs with pronounced notes.
Acquiring a taste for bitterness takes time and perseverance. However, as you get more invested in this process, you might even cultivate a new appreciation for these flavors—not so off-putting, we promise.
* Study published on Duke Heath