Good, better, bitter

The basics of bitter substances

What are bitter substances?

Bitter substances are all chemical compounds that cause a bitter taste. The bitter taste in plants serves to protect them from pests and to keep herbivores at bay.

Chemically, bitter substances do not form a uniform group. They are often found in the three substance groups of glycosides, isoprenoids and alkaloids. Bitter substances are differentiated on the basis of their bitter value. The highest naturally occurring bitter value is 60,000,000 for columbin, which is found in the columba root native to Africa. Wormwood, found in Artemisia absinthium, has a bitter value of about 3,000,000. The bitter substances in dandelions have a bitter value of about 100.

The bitter substances used as medicines are divided into four main groups by pharmacists:

Amara Tonica (also referred to as Amara Pura, Stomachica or Aperitiva)

The bitter substances contained in this stimulate the production of digestive juices and have a tonic effect, i.e. they strengthen and invigorate the entire body. This group includes, for example, the yellow gentian, the cinchona or the centaury.

Amara aromatica
In addition to bitter substances, Amara aromatica contains essential oils that, for example, have an antispasmodic or anti-inflammatory effect or that specifically stimulate the flow of bile. The effect is aimed more on the digestive system and less on general strengthening and invigoration. Examples of this group include artichoke, common mugwort, hops, yarrow and wormwood.

Amara acria
Amara acria are plant constituents that have a bitter taste and contain pungent substances. The sensation of pain caused by the pungency stimulates the production of saliva and gastric juices. Certain pungent substances also have a strengthening and invigorating effect on the intestinal muscles. Plants in this group include ginger, watercress, nasturtium and horseradish.

Amara mucilaginosa
In addition to bitter substances, this group contains mucilages that can soothe an irritated mucous membrane. Amara mucilaginosa is found in beard lichen or Iceland moss.

Bitter substances in modern medicine

A total of around 250 plants are currently being used medicinally. These include phytopharmaceuticals containing bitter substances, which are prescribed in powder or drop form or as a tincture, in particular the bitter active substances of yellow gentian root, cinchona bark, bitter orange peel, centaury, blessed thistle or wormwood.

Which plants contain bitter substances?

Bitter substances are found in various wild plants and herbs, but also in the skin or peel of some fruit and vegetables.

Well-known plants that contain bitter substances are artichoke, angelica, dandelion, gentian, centaury, hop, yarrow and wormwood. More detailed information on this can be found in our herbal lexicon.

Good, better, bitter

Why we very much need bitter substances

In the past you used to have a lot more bitter flavours 

Do you like grapefruit or chicory? Do you like a slightly bitter taste? If you do, you are in luck, because you are probably living a healthier life. Nowadays, the majority of people tend to prefer sweet, salty or umami (very spicy and savoury) flavours. 

A bitter flavour is more likely to be perceived as unpleasant.

Until quite recently, this was very different. 40 to 50 years ago, many more fruits and vegetables contained bitter substances, but because bitterness does not sell well and is often perceived as unpleasant and offputting, the bitterness was gradually eliminated from vegetables, fruits and lettuce. We have made our food tastier. However, we do tolerate bitter substances in stimulants such as coffee and beer.

The industrialisation of the food industry has also contributed to the fact that the bitter flavour has increasingly disappeared from our food. In particular fruit and vegetable varieties that grow quickly and produce high yields are now being cultivated. They are no longer given the time to ripen and develop nutrients, aromatic and bitter substances. And that is exactly what we need so badly. Instead, many of our foods contain preservatives, emulsifiers and colourings. Agriculture uses pesticides, insecticides and fungicides to grow our food. The meat industry uses antibiotics and hormones. All this causes our digestion to become overloaded and sluggish.

The now almost complete absence of bitter substances in our diet may also be a major contributor to many health problems and obesity. 

Safe aids for the digestive system 

When bitter substances are ingested with food, they immediately set the digestive processes in motion. They already start their work in the mouth. The bitter taste stimulates the salivary glands and increases the production of saliva. This allows the meal to be pre-digested in the mouth and it is then more easily processed by the stomach.

In the stomach, the bitter substances also increase the release of gastric juices and the blood flow to the stomach lining. The liver, gall bladder and pancreas are also stimulated to produce digestive juices. This means that heavy food can be digested more thoroughly and more quickly than without the intervention of the bitter substances.

In addition, the muscle activity of the digestive organs is activated. The entire digestive system starts to function. The increased production of digestive juices in the stomach, gall bladder and pancreas leads to a lowering of the pH-value, which improves the absorption of food.

Only when the digestive system is functioning properly can nutrients and vital substances be perfectly absorbed and every single cell in the body optimally supplied with them. Equally important is the complete and rapid elimination of unnecessary substances.

Antibacterial and expectorant for colds 

Bitter substances affect the bronchial system in various ways. They stimulate the tiny hairs on the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract to move more. This keeps bacteria and other pathogens away from the cell surface. Moreover, the mucus is better transported out of the body. The bitter substances relax the muscles of the bronchi and at the same time cells are stimulated to release certain antibodies, thus activating the immune system. 

Strengthening for the whole body 

Many diseases start in the stomach or intestines. We should be aware that eighty percent of our body’s immune system is located in the intestines. All kinds of pathogens are fought there. By increasing the secretion of digestive juices, bitter substances ensure that the surface of the intestinal mucosa is moistened and thus remains supple and mobile. 

The cardiovascular system is also stimulated by bitter substances. They increase the blood flow to the organs and thus improve their function.

The blood vessels thus remain flexible and protect you from high blood pressure. 

Bitter substances for a good figure 

Almost everyone is aware of the following: we eat too much, too much fat and too much sweet food. Modern manufactured food tempts us to keep eating and we become overweight. The kilos keep piling on, we feel unwell and, in the worst case, we become ill. We go on a diet and lose weight temporarily. But because we do not fundamentally change our diet, we put on weight again and the whole thing repeats itself.

Bitter substances can help break this vicious circle. They naturally curb our appetite and we stop eating when enough is enough. The craving for sweet food also disappears when there are enough bitter substances in the food. Bitter substances in our food stimulate our metabolism in such a way that fat burning also runs at full speed.

Preventing malignant tumours 

There are some studies that suggest that bitter substances prevent cancer. In particular, colon cancer is less likely to develop in a healthy gut flora.