The Bitter Truth

My kids were my folks first grandchildren, and so as you could imagine trips from Alaska down to the Pacific Northwest grew frequent, especially for my mother who wanted to witness as much of their growing up as possible. My folks would stay for several weeks at a time. Initially, they'd rent a car so they'd have the freedom and mobility they needed when I was at work. After about the fourth or fifth time of renting a car for three or more weeks they began to engage in a discussion about buying a small car to leave in Seattle. It would be far more economical. The discussion took place over an extended period of time. There was some concern openly discussed about my mother's sense of directions, and fear of driving on the highway; perhaps some tales told over dinner of some colorful language that she used while stressed by other drivers. Finally, they made a decision to bite the bullet and buy. At the time my children were about 4 and 7 years old.

Most of the time both my folks came down, and my father would drive. There were the occasional trips when my mother came solo. The first time she came down and the car was around she began to pump herself up for the driving to the store. My oldest took note. My mother gathered her purse and put on a light sweater. My oldest child ran to the basement in search of what I thought might be a toy she wanted to take in the car. She called her sister who went to her. When they came into the living room, where we were waiting, my oldest child was strapping a bicycle helmet onto her sister, and dangling from her arm was one she'd put on. Puzzled I asked, why she'd put on bicycle helmets and she responded that they were getting ready to go in the car with 'Nana'. They did wear the helmets in the car with my mother to and from the store. It's called prevention, and it was based on information.

This is all to tie into another post that I made regarding the consistent use of herbs in our diets. 'Blue zones' that is areas in the world where we find low levels of disease and longevity, frequently use herbs and spices in their cooking.

Let's focus today on a flavor of food that has some wonderful properties: bitters, and how to incorporate that flavor more consistently into our diets.

Our Standard American Diet (SAD) is dependent on two flavors: sweet and salty most commonly found in processed foods as an added ingredient. These flavors are addicting, and over consumption leads to obesity, and high blood pressure. Certainly, during cancer treatment sugary and salty foods are most associated with inflammation, and contribute to developing increased side effect during any phase of treatment.

Around the world, bitter is a flavor that is incorporated a lot more readily than it is in the US. Most common examples are bitters one sometimes uses in England for digestive aid, or aperitifs used in France to help with digestion before or after eating, and also certain vegetables used in meals for example bitter melon in stir fry. Here in the US we have not incorporated bitter as a common and appealing taste (except for dark chocolate and coffee -- both often sweetened with sugar).

But we should begin to consistently use and appreciate the taste and use of bitters into our diets for several reasons. Let's start with what happens when our tongues taste the bitter flavor. When we sense bitter flavor our stomach begin to secrete small amounts of gastric acid to prepare for digestion. In turn gastric acid causes the secretion of gastric (stomach enzymes). In other words the stomach is prepping for digestion to begin. Bitter also causes an increased secretion of saliva (which may be helpful to neck and throat cancer patients with decreased saliva production). Salvia contains a small, yet important amount of digestive enzymes. The bitter flavor also triggers the secretion of bile from the gallbladder. Bile helps to emulsify fat soluble vitamins meaning that you absorb them better. These vitamins include vitamin A, E, D. Further down the 'pipe' so to say proper elimination is supported by optimal function of the stomach, small and large intestine.

The bitter component usually contains some portion of sulfur containing constituent which is helpful in assisting the liver in its detoxification processes.

For me, what's super interesting is the ability of bitter foods to help regulate blood sugar levels. An example of this is bitter melon. I'll be posting more about this very soon.

So what are these bitter foods you might ask, that I am suggesting you make a habit of getting in your diet at least four times a week for prevention and to help wit side effects of treatment? Arugula, Collard greens, kale, Dandelion greens, dill, bitter melon, artichokes, citrus rinds, and sesame seeds to name a few. Dandelion and arugula can readily be added to fresh salads, though they are seasonal.

Perhaps the two most likely bitter greens we use in the US are kale and Collard greens. Taste does matter for consistent consumption to happen. I used to strongly dislike kale and Collard greens when I was younger but it was because they were prepared either steamed with just a small amount of salt, or they were cooked for hours with a ham hock.

I have what I think is a delicious way to prepare both these greens. I de-vein which ever one I am using, and then cut the leaves into small thin strips. I mince up lots of fresh garlic (I admit that I eat garlic like a vegetable, but you don't have to). To a skillet or wok I add some extra virgin olive oil, heat and add the slice leaves, and then the garlic. While that is cooking, I mix a 1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 2 to 3 TBS of almond butter with more garlic. If you like a little spice you might want to add some chili flakes. When the leaves are bright green and slightly drooping add the vinegar nut mixture and continue to cook for about five to ten minutes more. Delicious!