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Bitter Herbs: A Tasteful History
By Angela Willard Cl. H
Angela Willard is a Clinical Herbalist and Co-Founder at Harmonic Arts. She’s passionate about growing herbs, herbal consulting, and sharing her love and knowledge of plants. Angela finds balance between nurturing Harmonic Arts' vision and raising a young family.
Bitters have a long history of use, and for good reason! Bitter herbs support the foundation of all health: digestion. Their bitter flavour is not often part of the average diet, but just as important as any of the other flavours when it comes to your health.
Bitter herbs offer us the following health benefits:
- Stimulate the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes¹.
- Support the digestive process of breaking down food.
- Filter Out waste.
- Help the body assimilate nutrients.
- Counter the negative impacts of sugars in the diet by increasing the metabolism of carbohydrates. (In Traditional Chinese Medicine)
The use of herbal bitters was first documented in ancient Egypt, often added to wines during celebratory feasts. Bitters may have been used as a digestive aid for large elaborate meals. Historians speculate the bitter taste was added during celebrations as a bittersweet reminder that life brings both joy and suffering.
The age-old traditional Peruvian bitter, cinchona bark is still used by indigenous healers in South America. This powerfully strong bitter has been commonly used as protection from the harmful effects of malaria². Cinchona bark is the inspiration behind today’s tonic water. Traditionally, tonic water is mixed with distilled spirits containing other cooling and antimicrobial medicinal herbs, helping protect from tropical-borne diseases.
In the early 1700’s, bitters were a cure- all in European apothecaries. These blends consisted of many bitter botanicals, using the optimal medicinal parts of plants such as roots, bark, berries, leaves, and flowers.
In modern times, bitters are a common ingredient in cocktails. The bitter flavours to help round out and harmonize the sweet and sour ingredients that make alcohol more palatable.
There are also a number of digestive aperitifs popular today- more akin to the earliest use of bitters as a pre or after-dinner digestive aid. Of course, the classic use of herbal bitters in tincture form is also found in modern apothecaries and health food stores.
HOW TO TAKE BITTERS
At Harmonic Arts, we enjoy our Herbal Bitters tincture on it’s own before a meal, or in a tasty mocktail! Add 2-3 droppers to a glass of sparkling water, with a squeeze of lemon, and a dash of maple syrup. Refreshingly delicious!
- Glatzel, H., & Hackenberg, K. (1967). Radiological study of the effects of bitters on the digestive organs. Planta Medica, 15(03), 223–232. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0028-1099976
- Willcox, M. L., & Bodeker, G. (2004). Traditional herbal medicines for malaria. BMJ, 329(7475), 1156–1159. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7475.1156