The Forgotten Flavor

The Forgotten Flavor
Don’t scrunch up your nose at bitter foods; embrace them! (Tribune News Service)

As a flavor, bitter often gets a bad rap. A taste to grimace at instead of crave. While we have historically avoided bitter flavors in favor of all things fatty, salty and sugary, foods like arugula, frisée, rapini, and their respective bitter edges are increasingly colonizing restaurant menus and the vegetable aisle of supermarkets. Bitter flavors are an important part of our sense of taste, helping to balance sweet, salty and sour notes that are so prevalent in modern foods. It’s a flavor that instantly elevates a meal to elegant, complex heights and excites our nervous system.

For the most part, we should consider bitterness as the taste of health. That’s because the compounds that make foods come off as bitter to our taste buds (such as polyphenols in cacao, catechins in green tea, terpenes in citrus peel and glucosinolates in broccoli) also happen to be good-for-you antioxidants that may help lower the risk for certain deadly diseases like cancer and heart failure.

And developing a bigger appetite for bitter-tasting foods could help in the battle of the bulge. A study published in the journal Appetite found that individuals who frowned upon bitter-tasting fare were more likely to be overweight. This makes sense if people replace bitter foods with sugary or salty processed foods and need to tame the bitterness of their morning coffee with spoonfuls of sugar. Plus, bitter foods also tend to be less calorie-dense.

While most people aren’t born with a craving for bitter foods (think of a childlike aversion to Brussels sprouts), the grown-up palate can learn to actually enjoy this underappreciated flavor. The key is to look for ways to sneak a small amount of bitter-tasting foods into meals and work up from there. So, this could be as easy as tossing a handful of bitter greens into a salad or walnuts onto morning oatmeal.

Repeat exposure is a key way to learn to like bitter foods. Also, pair bitter foods with other flavors—for instance, serve roasted Brussels sprouts with sweet-tart apple slices or radicchio with crumbled soft goat cheese. After all, bitter plays well with sour, salt and especially sweet.

Try cutting back on the amount of sweetener you add to coffee or tea to build up a bitter tolerance and enjoy the bitter nuances of these drinks in un-futzed with forms. Or take on the task of working your way up the chocolate ladder to bars with higher cocoa content to ease into the sophisticated and mouth-watering world of bitter.

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