What You Need to Know About Bitters

Bitters have made their mark in the cocktail scene, but could bitters also be good for you?

A cocktail renaissance has swept this city, making it nearly impossible to order from a drink list that does not include aromatic cocktail bitters. The cocktail scene has taken a page from the restaurants’ farm to table approach, with hundreds of bartenders and cocktail coinsures making their own bitters. The single most popular bitter, Angostura Bitters, can be found in just about any cocktail bar in Boston. In addition to creating flavorful cocktails, bitters have historically been used as the cure-all for what ails you and their medicinal use is increasing. Bitters can be defined as aromatic flavoring agents made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, herbs, flowers and botanicals in high proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin). Classic bitters are dandelion, gentian, coffee, dark chocolate and greens. Common bitter herbs are bitter melon, bitter orange, centuary, elecampane, gentian, junper and yarrow. Carminatives, also called aromatic digestive bitters, include peppermint, fennel, and caraway. Bitters’ medicinal use can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who used a mix of bitters and wine for everything from stomach pains to headaches. By the 1700’s bitters were being marketed as a remedy for disorders of circulation and digestion. Somewhere around the 18th century people started adding bitters to their cocktail glass rather than their medicine cup. Bitters’ medicinal use is thought to begin on the tongue. The tongue’s taste buds allow us to discern 5 distinct flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory.

Many traditional cultures around the world believe that it is important to have all 5 flavors within the diet and that each flavor has a specific effect on the body. Bitter enthusiasts believe that our bodies crave these bitter flavors, especially when our modern diets encompass large amounts of sweet, salty and processed food. Bitters, when ingested around mealtime, are thought to aid in the digestive process by alerting the body that a complex food is being eaten and increasing saliva production as well as stomach acids and digestive enzymes. Some herbalist also believes that bitters can help promote healthy intestinal flora. Bitters can be added to meals or taken separately. Bitter enthusiasts recommend adding lightly blanched dandelion or mustard greens to a salad or mixing unfiltered apple cider vinegar to water 15 minutes prior to a meal. As Bitters are thought to increase stomach acid, those with conditions that increase stomach acid should steer clear. Separating the trendiness of bitters from reported health claims is difficult. As with all dietary supplements the safety of bitters is unregulated.

Although bitters have a long medicinal history, much of their use in humans is anecdotal. A recent article in the Journal of Medical Science showed favorable effects of bitters on the body weight and lipid profiles in rats, although scientific studies on bitters use in humans remains limited. http://docsdrive.com/pdfs/ansinet/jms/2013/62-66.pdf. Further, Bitters safety has come under fire, specifically the use of bitter orange as a weight loss supplement. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), there have been reports of individuals fainting, heart attack and stroke in healthy people after taking bitter orange supplements alone or combined with caffeine. Evidence is limited that bitter orange is safer than ephedra. As with any dietary herb or supplement, check with your medical provider before incorporating bitters or bitter herbs into your diet, especially young children, pregnant women and those on medications. Ensure that bitters are alcohol free, especially in those under 21. Skylar’s Bottom Line:Scientific studies in humans on the safety and efficacy of bitters remains limited. Bitters when taken as recommended and cleared by your medical provider could be considered a possible tool in improving one’s overall health and wellness. Learn More about Bitters: http://btparsons.com/bitters/

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