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Why Food Tastes Bitter

Bitter-tasting compounds in plants most likely evolved to protect them from being eaten by animals. Analysis of a plant database showed that a bitter food is more likely to be toxic than one that isn’t bitter. This means that our ancestors who craved bitter foods had a better chance of poisoning themselves, which means that they probably died out before they could become our ancestors. (You could make a movie about this paradox called “Blech to the Future.”)

At the same time, not all bitter-tasting plants are harmful. Arugula, dandelion, chamomile, chicory, radishes, cruciferous vegetables, parsley, cocoa, coffee, endive, grapefruit — they all have strong health-promoting properties, not in spite of their bitter elements, but as we’ll see, because of them.

Bitter compounds in plants are usually alkaloids, many of which are toxic to humans even in small quantities.

There are also bitter compounds that have low levels of toxicity but are important for overall health. Phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates are groups of phytochemicals that are known for their health benefits and are also found in bitter foods.

Similar to when our muscles and bones grow stronger in response to the stress of exercise, our health may improve through exposure to these low-toxicity, bitter phytochemicals. Scientists even have a name for this adaptive response to moderate stress: hormesis. (Sort of like “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” but more like “what mildly irritates us without causing actual harm gives us stronger immune systems and lower rates of chronic illness.”)

Some bitter phytochemicals, like flavonoids, act as antioxidants that remove free radicals from our bodies — like little microscopic Roombas rolling around and preventing chronic disease. Since we can’t control this process directly, it’s best to provide our bodies with the necessary resources — healthful, bitter foods. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends including a variety of plant foods in our diets to ensure the availability of a full range of beneficial phytochemicals, boosting our chances to maintain a healthy antioxidant balance and stave off chronic disease.

( Excerpt from the food revolution network)

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