Humans have five distinct flavor sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (or umami). These sensations are produced by five different classes of taste buds on the tongue. When we eat food, our experience of the food is some combination of these five flavors, and the aromas detected by our nose. Although it is possible for foods to be too sweet, too sour, or too salty, these other flavors usually taste good to most people, at least in moderation. Of the five flavors, bitter is the one that tends to taste bad.
This article explains why people are naturally averse to bitter foods, and also explains how you can learn to enjoy bitter foods. Some of the healthiest natural foods and drinks, such as cabbage-family plants and other vegetables, tea and herbal teas, and various herbs and spices, are naturally bitter. If you learn to appreciate bitter flavors, you open up the door to a wide variety of very healthful foods and drinks. But in order to do this, it helps to understand what the function of the bitter flavor is.
Bitter is a warning signal:
The sensation of bitter is an evolutionary adaptation to protect us against eating poisonous or harmful foods. When children taste a bitter food, their natural inclination is to spit it out and avoid it. Most naturally occurring poisons are extremely bitter. Because children do not know what foods are safe to eat, and because of their small size and body weight, they are extremely vulnerable to poisons in their environment. There are numerous wild berries which look an appetizing bright red color, but which are deadly poisonous. The strong bitter flavor of these berries protects children…if they do eat them when an adult is not looking, they will probably spit them out.
Adapting to bitter foods:
Although most natural poisons taste bitter to humans, there are many healthy, natural foods which are also bitter. For this reason, humans evolved an ability to develop an appreciation for bitter foods. This development happens both in general (a person becoming able to appreciate bitter flavors across the board) and in the case of specific types of food).
In the case of specific foods, a person presented with an unfamiliar food will tend to dislike it at first, especially if it is bitter. However, if that person eats a small amount of it, and feels well after eating it, the next time they encounter the food, it will taste a little better. They can then eat a little more, and then see how they feel. This natural mechanism allows people to discover new healthy foods that may taste bad initially, but are good for the body. As the person learns through exposing themselves to the food over time that the food makes them feel good, it will begin to taste a lot better to them.
This phenomenon is useful for parents to take note of. When feeding young children new foods, especially bitter-tasting vegetables like broccoli, it’s reasonable to just give them the tiniest bite. Keep in mind it may taste pretty awful to them initially. Then, a while later, try giving them the food again and have them eat a tiny bit more, gradually introducing them to the food.
Some bitter foods to experiment with appreciating:
Many green, leafy vegetables of the cabbage family, like collard greens, mustard greens, and watercress, are naturally bitter, and yet are among some of the healthiest vegetables out there. If you want to develop your appreciation for eating these sorts of foods, try introducing them to your diet slowly, a little bit at a time. The same goes for many spices and herbs used as seasonings.
Coffee and tea are two mainstay bitter beverages, widely consumed in western society. Tea in particular is a healthy beverage, much healthier than the soft drinks or sweetened drinks that many Americans drink in quantity. If you drink soft drinks or other sweetened drinks, or if you drink coffee or tea with milk or sugar, and you want to develop your taste for drinking straight black coffee, or straight black tea or green tea, try sipping some unsweetened tea or coffee every time you have the opportunity, before adding any milk or sugar. It may taste too bitter at first, but if you expose yourself to the flavor over time, you will begin to enjoy the bitter flavor more.