Recently, my mother treated me to a meal of bitter melon. Starting with light-green fruit that resembled warty cucumbers, she sliced the gourds thinly, discarding the seeds before cooking the slices in her ancient, blackened iron pot. She prepared it the Caribbean way—sautéed in a little olive oil, with onion, garlic, tomato, salt, and fresh pepper, until the slices were tender and fragrant—and then served it over hot rice. It was a savory and unusual lunch, the combination of bitter, tangy, and salty flavors teasing the palate with subtle surprises.
She has cooked bitter melon for decades, but this was the first time that I ate it willingly, having learned of its restorative benefits for the digestive system and a host of related ailments. I was happy to discover that something with medicinal powers could taste so good.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), known also as bitter gourd and several other names, is a popular food in the West Indies and Asia, where it grows abundantly, but it is also found in southern California and southern Florida. It is one of many plants that have been used for centuries to support the health and vigor of the digestive organs.
The bitter herbs
Bitter herbs are a cosmopolitan bunch, ranging from the seriously bitter gentian (Gentiana lutea), bitter melon, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) to the milder-tasting dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus), endive, lettuce, chamomile (Matricaria recutita), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), tea (Camellia sinensis), and coffee. They are replete with biochemicals such as glucosinolates, tannins, terpenes, isothiocyanates, alkaloids, phenols, isoflavones, flavonoids, catechins, and saponins (all of which can contribute bitter flavors), which help the plants to fight pests.
In humans, bitter herbs can stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, tone up the liver and kidneys, and derail a host of diseases. Bitter melon, in particular, has been shown in studies to have a remarkable capacity to lower blood sugar, owing partly to chemicals such as beta-sitosterol-d-glucoside and charantin; and to ease rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, because of immunosuppressive constituents such as alpha- and beta-momorcharin. Its phytochemicals, lanosterol and xeaxanthin, are considered to be cancer-preventive, and the saponin diosgenin helps to protect the liver. Not surprisingly, given the role of bitter chemicals in plant defense, bitter melon also has antibiotic properties.
Bitter herbs, in general, can galvanize our digestive systems to function at their peak by stimulating the production of digestive juices and the dispatch of stored bile (necessary for fat digestion and sugar metabolism) from the gallbladder to the small intestine after meals, thus aiding nutrient assimilation. Bile itself is a natural laxative.
Gentle bitter herbs such as dandelion support the liver in detoxification and bile production without inducing dependence on the herb. Dandelion roots have been used for centuries to treat jaundice, the yellowing of the skin that results from a malfunctioning liver. Dandelion flowers are rich in lecithin, a nutrient effective in various liver ailments. The herb also reduces serum cholesterol and uric acid (a factor in gout). Nutrient analyses conducted by the USDA and others have shown that dandelion greens are richer in vitamin A than carrots, and exceed the vitamin B, C, and D content of most other common vegetables. As a diuretic, dandelion leaves help to flush excess water from the body, without depleting the body’s potassium.
The activities of many other bitter herbs are continuously being updated, as we learn more about these fascinating plants. Chamomile, used for centuries as a tonic, has been validated scientifically for its anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, antibacterial, antifungal, sedative, liver-stimulating, and dermatological properties. Gentian root—the most bitter plant known—acts on all of the glands and organs of the digestive system, including the gallbladder, pancreas, liver, and kidneys; it is considered particularly promising for the diabetic or pre-diabetic, and also appears to help normalize thyroid function (likely indirectly). Extracts of chicory, whose ground roots are often used as a coffee additive or substitute, have been found in animal studies to inhibit certain types of allergic reactions. Even the humble lettuce is noteworthy in helping to combat asthma, bronchitis, cancer, cardiac conditions, hyperglycemia, and circulation problems.
Changing our diets
So how do we get more of these bitter plants into our everyday diets? The choices are plentiful: they can be used fresh in salads, in soups and other cooked dishes, and in herbal vinegars, teas, or juices. Their extracts also come as tinctures, capsules, or powders.
Cooking the herbs reduces the bitterness but also destroys some phytochemicals and nutrients, so try to avoid cooking for too long (steam or sauté for no longer than a few minutes). Strong bitter herbs such as the bitter melon can tolerate longer cooking times and still retain an assertively bitter flavor.
How much of the fresh or cooked bitter herb is enough? Your taste is a good guide here, as the very bitter herbs can be overpowering even in moderate quantities. Recent studies have shown that humans possess a multitude of bitter taste receptors, so we’re very sensitive to these chemicals. A little as a side dish or mild tea is probably the most satisfying. (For example, to make dandelion tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of ground root per cup of water for 10 minutes; sip before meals or at bedtime.) Even a few drops of commercial herbal bitters in your juice may be to your liking—these formulas commonly contain gentian. Endive leaves in salads are a wonderful addition, but use only a few leaves as a complement rather than as the main salad ingredient. The same goes for other bitter salad constituents such as dandelion or chicory leaves (the flowers of both can also be used).
One of the unfortunate results of current food processing practices is that bitter compounds in many plants are routinely removed or selected against because consumers dislike the bitter taste and often believe it is due to the presence of toxins. Consequently, the medicinal value of many foods may be diminished. Ironically, it is the bitter taste in some foods that complements and intensifies the flavors of other foods, making our meals more enjoyable.
While toxicities to common bitter herbs are not generally a problem, there are exceptions. For example, bitter melon should not be consumed during pregnancy because of risks to the fetus. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported neurological problems associated with extracts of wormwood, another bitter plant. (Absinthe, an apéritif traditionally made from wormwood, is now available in wormwood-free formulations.) Further, you may be allergic to some plants, especially dandelion, endive, thistle, yarrow, or chicory. Finally, bitter herbs in high doses may cause some individuals to vomit when given in liquid form. A little goes a long way with bitter plants, so don’t overdo it.
Many herbalists maintain that a bitter herb must be tasted in order to stimulate the digestive glands, hence they advise against swallowing pills or capsules that bypass the taste buds. However, the activities of digestive glands respond to overlapping signals from the head, stomach, and intestine, so taking a capsule when you can’t have the real thing should not preclude your benefiting from the herb’s action. (It’s just more fun to eat the plant!)
As for me, from now on I’ll be adding bitter melon to my grocery list and spicing up my fruit juices with a few drops of bitters. It’s a start.
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist living in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. She is the author of a recent book, Catnip and Kerosene Grass—What Plants Teach Us About Life (Candlenut Books, 2002). E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.