Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Good Bitter

In some cases, bitterness means toxicity. Because of this, we humans have evolved to favor sweetness in our food and drink. That is all well and good, but these days most of us have a pretty good understanding of which foods and drinks we can safely consume.

Some people will avoid many wonderful foods just because they have a low to medium level of bitterness. Other people will consume these foods with added sweetener to mask their bitter flavors. In moderation that should be fine, but too much added sweetener may in time contribute to some diseases.

Many healthy foods like tea, grapefruits, and some leafy greens (to name just a few) may have some bitterness, but that certainly does not make them bad. Bitterness is often a sign that the food is high in antioxidants which is a very good thing. I have also read that Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine traditions honor all different flavor profiles and promote the consumption of sweet, salty, sour, astringent, savory and bitter foods and drinks. The key is balance and moderation.

I work in a busy tea house and over the last eight and a half years, I have seen literally thousands of perfectly good cups of well-brewed tea subjected to massive amounts of honey, sugar or artificial sweeteners. I don't want this post to turn into a "bitter rant" (pardon the word play), I only want to suggest that some of us (though probably not many of my readers) are using too much sweetener and thus robbing ourselves of a rewarding natural flavor experience!

I'm not going to lie. I also enjoy sweetened tea from time to time. But I drink over 90% of my tea plain. I sometimes worry about the many customers that I see who are always dumping 3 to 5 (or more) cubes of white sugar cubes into their relatively small mugs of finely-brewed tea. Do they do this all the time or is this just a special treat? Should I ask them about it? Of course not, I should mind my own business.

The Chinese have a saying, "eat bitterness" (吃苦), which is often translated as "the ability to endure hardship." I would like to expand this expression to include its literal meaning as well. Perhaps we should all eat and drink a little more bitterness. If we can't appreciate a food's natural bitterness, then how will we be able to appreciate its natural sweetness?


Jackie said...

Interesting and valid points. I think that adding too much sugar/sweetener to tea is just part of a wider issue.

We just consume too much sugar in general. Our taste buds are so accustomed to sweet flavors, we want all our foods to be sweet.

Sugar is added to so many foods, not just the obvious ones. Why do we want our breads and crackers to taste sweet? Even salty crackers have sugar in them. We'll pick up a seemingly healthy low fat yogurt and it's loaded with sugar.

We need to take a closer look at the sugar levels in our food and beverages, and ask ourselves if we really need them to taste that sweet.

Cutting out, or cutting down on the sugar we spoon into our tea, is one good place to start.

Nicole Manha said...

I just had some fresh squeezed red star grapefruit juice with my tofu scramble. Salty and sweet and bitter and spicey! Oo OO and then! I found one last piece of raw orange bell pepper left camoflaged on my orange cutting board! What a treat! I love you, Brett.

Denise said...

@Nicole - you just made me hungry!

In addition to Jackie's great point about people consuming too much sugar in general, I think the overloading of sweeteners in tea also comes from the American way of improperly brewing our tea. I cringe when I see people sipping their mugs full of tea with the bag still in. Even the cheapest bag of Lipton tea tastes worlds better when it's steeped for the proper amount of time. I have this idealistic view that everyone would love tea in all of its natural splendor if they would just stop oversteeping! And just think of how much they would enjoy it if it were allowed room to breathe in the steeping pot outside of those constrictive bags and then decanted into...okay, now I'm just getting carried away.

Marlena said...

No sugar in my tea, or my coffee either. Too much of our food and drink is too darn sweet, it has lost its balance.

Alex Zorach said...

I've actually thought a lot about this. A while back I wrote a rather speculative blog post about antioxidants and bitterness in tea, which was sparked by a rather scientific article I was reading at the time.

I've also noticed that over time, my tastes have developed away from liking sweet things and towards liking bitter things. I think this makes sense...bitter things may be poisonous so your body tends to be averse to them at first, but as you try them and they make you feel good, you start to like them more and more.


I do think there's a connection too between tastes for sweet / bitter and health...and it's for this reason that I wonder if drinking unsweetened tea can have further health benefits beyond just the chemistry of what's in the tea--if it can spark you to avoid refined sugars in other foods and seek out foods that are healthier overall!