Most people know that refined sugar is bad for our health in many ways; it raises inflammation, causes tooth decay and weight gain and predisposes us to many chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It’s also hugely addictive and temptation is everywhere – which probably explains why, despite the health warnings and the governments attempts to reduce consumption via a sugar tax, we are consuming more than ever.
Another important trend affecting our health that is rarely talked about is how our consumption of bitter foods has decreased over the decades, especially if we compare this with our distant ancestors.
Plant breeders have introduced sweeter varieties to satisfy our altered taste buds and bitter compounds, called salvestrols, are removed during processing from foods such as fruit juices and olive oil to ‘improve’ the taste.
Salvestrols are a type of plant derived compound (phytonutrient) which impart a bitter flavour. Plants contain a huge array of different phytonutrients to help protect them from stressors like pests and diseases and UV light. They confer a wide range of health benefits to humans, too, by activating various enzyme pathways. Salvestrols have also been shown by various studies to cause tumour cells to die but leave healthy cells unharmed.
Cancer cells contain an enzyme called CYP1B1. When a salvestrol molecule is taken up by a cancer cell this enzyme is converted into a substance that is highly toxic to the cell, causing death of that cell. Salvestrol can enter healthy cells and leave them unaffected as they do not contain the CYP1B1 protein.
Which vegetables and fruit contain the most salvestrols?
The highest amount of salvestrols are contained in more bitter vegetables such as sorrel, spinach, rocket, watercress, kale, cabbage, chard and other green vegetables. Courgettes, cucumber, celery, aubergines and avocado and the less sweet fruit like berries, apples, plums and olives also contain reasonable amounts. Herbs (basil, parsley, mint, coriander) are another good source.
That said, conventionally grown crops sprayed with pesticides contain only negligible amounts. After all, if there is no threat from pest or disease attack there is no need for the plant’s own self defense mechanisms. Organically grown produce is better for health in many ways and this is definitely one of them. Even better, home grown crops that are grown organically will be higher in both nutrition and salvestrols and you can grow varieties that are more bitter – or vegetables that are difficult to get in the shops such as sorrel. Many of the vegetables that contain the highest amount fo salvestrols can be grown in containers and will give you produce for a long period of time (eg kale, spinach, rockets, leaf beet).
If you have no outdoor space at all, consider growing a few herbs. Not only will they add flavour to a variety of dishes, they will give you a shot of health enhancing phytonutrients, including salvestrols.
Other benefits of bitter foods
The health benefits of bitter foods extend beyond salvestrols; bitter food also support gallbladder and liver health. The liver secretes bile, which is stored and concentrated in the gallbladder and released when we eat a meal containing fat. Bile emulsifies dietary fats and helps absorption of not only these, but also fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
Bile is also an excretion route for various toxins eliminated in the faeces. It has a deodorizing action on the stool and a gentle laxative effect. If your stools are pale and float and/or smell very bad and/or you are constipated it may be due to inadequate secretion of bile. Bile also plays an important role in the excretion of excess cholesterol.
If bile is too thick and stagnant this not only negatively impacts absorption of fats and essential nutrients and excretion of cholesterol and toxins, it may be detrimental to gut health.
Bitter foods taken before meals stimulate bile flow and improve digestion. It is also possible that they promote the secretion of stomach acid and production of various digestive enzymes.
Getting more bitter into your life...
- Eat a rocket and/or watercress salad before your main meal
- Have either 1-2 tablesp organic apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in water before main meals
- Add a couple of (juiced) dandelion leaves to the liver loving juice recipe and drink just before main meal
- Make sure you have lots of green veg and herbs in your diet
- Eat fruit that is more tart or bitter (eg tart apples, blackcurrants, blueberries etc) in smoothies etc. Avoid ‘supersweet’ varieties
Are you a 'Super-taster?'
Around 25% of the population are known as ‘super-tasters’ and find the taste of bitter foods particularly unpleasant. This means they can miss out on the many health benefits.
If you aren’t keen on bitter foods you can make them more palatable by adding a mild, (healthy) food to moderate the taste. For example you could mix hummus with salad or use olive oil to dress leaves. Adding butter or drizzling olive oil onto cooked greens can diminish the bitter taste until you become more accustomed to it