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What bitter foods do for your immunity

We have five basic types of taste receptors — salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and savory, also known as umami. The sweet and salty flavors often grab most of the attention when we’re deciding what to eat.

Sour, umami, and — most of all — bitter flavors often get neglected, even though these foods make important contributions to health. In fact, bitter plants have been used to promote good digestion and respiratory function for centuries, and bitter flavors may have an especially profound influence on immunity.

Taste receptors where?

Here’s an interesting thing about taste receptors — they aren’t just on your tongue. Research has discovered that we have them in our hearts, immune cells, lungs, fat, intestines, thyroid, and other organs.

Equally surprising is the fact that we have at least 25 different kinds of receptors for bitter, while we only have one for each of the other flavors. Why do our brains, or our immune or fat cells, need to “taste” bitter things, and why so precisely?

It turns out that what we call “flavor” does a lot more than just give foods their taste. Sugar, for example, can impact how the body handles calories and inflammation, and salt is an incredibly important message for your heart, blood pressure, and kidneys. So it makes sense that bitter food molecules also contain signals that can potentially change the way your body works. 

How to train for immunity

Why are plants bitter, and how does this affect the humans who eat them? Many plants contain bitter phytonutrients that help them survive and thrive. When we eat bitter foods, it’s thought to help release our digestive fluids. And we think training your palate to appreciate bitter flavors in food also trains your immunity.

So what are those bitter foods we should be considering for wellness? Try experimenting with anything from this extensive list:

  • artichokes
  • buckwheat
  • parsley
  • radicchio
  • cruciferous vegetables (especially dark leafy ones like kale and collards)
  • endives
  • escarole
  • dandelion greens
  • unsweetened dark chocolate
  • tamarind
  • olives and olive oil
  • sesame seed
  • chestnuts
  • eggplant
  • burdock root
  • the white inner peel of citrus fruits
  • beet greens
  • grapefruit
  • hops
  • mugwort
  • cardamom, oregano, thyme, savory, rosemary, and marjoram
  • digestive “bitters”
  • unsweetened black coffee, cocoa, green tea, white tea, matcha tea, black tea, or tonic water

Phew, that was a lot. And while unsweetened cocoa may sound strange, the original Mayan and Aztec “xocolatl” drinks were prepared with hot peppers and sometimes cinnamon or flowers, but not much sweetness.

Until your taste buds adapt to healthy bitter flavors, we recommend adding a small amount of monkfruit sweetener to make it easier to enjoy these healthful foods.

If you're hungry for more, here’s a fascinating read on how folks who are genetically sensitive to bitter tastes are more likely to attain exceptional longevity — at least on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

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