‘If it tastes bad it must be good for you.’ I never hear that from younger patients, but older ones remember being dosed with all sorts of unpleasant concoctions, back in the days before medicines came in capsules, or disguised with colours and flavourings.
Broadly speaking, a lot of medicines still do taste pretty bad; if you crunched up an aspirin or a paracetamol, for example, you wouldn’t enjoy it much. But that bitter taste has an action of its own, and if you try to get rid of it, you also lose some of the power of the remedy.
What happens when you take something bitter into your mouth?
First of all, extra saliva is produced, to help dilute and break down whatever it is. Signals are sent through your digestive system, and more digestive juices are secreted further down as well; acid in your stomach, bile in the small intestine, and so on. This means that you are primed to deal with food efficiently, breaking it down and absorbing nutrients. In other words, although most foods themselves are not bitter, a small taste of bitterness with a meal helps you make best use of it.
Haute cuisine recognises this: start with a bitter aperitif and end with an espresso, and your system will cope better with the avalanche of richness in between
We use bitter herbs, like dandelion root, burdock, sage or the artemisias, to wake up the digestion, and the liver in particular. When that happens, all sorts of other things begin to fall into place. So it’s true, in moderation, that bad tastes can be good for you: too much bland, rich or sweet food sends your digestion to sleep.