What is Bitterness and How Does It Affect Your Taste Buds?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Bitterness is a defense mechanism for plants and animals to avoid being eaten, and it’s often found in natural substances like plants and minerals.

So, let’s look at what exactly bitterness is and how it affects our lives.

What is bitterness

The Sharp and Stinging Taste of Bitterness

When we talk about bitterness as a taste, we’re referring to a specific sensation on our taste buds. Here are some things to know about the taste of bitterness:

  • Noun: Bitterness is a noun that describes a taste that is not sweet, sour, or salty.
  • Distasteful: Bitterness is often associated with something that is unpleasant or distasteful.
  • Pungent: Bitterness can be pungent, which means it has a sharp, stinging quality.
  • Acetic: Bitterness can also be acerbic, which means it has a sour or bitter taste.

Why Does Bitter Taste Exist?

Bitterness is a prevalent taste sensation in many different types of foods and natural substances. It is often described as sharp, pungent, or disagreeable. But why does this taste exist? One hypothesis is that bitterness evolved as a defense mechanism against toxins and poisonous substances. Animals possessing bitter taste receptors were better able to avoid ingesting harmful substances, which improved their survivability and fitness.

The Role of Genes

Bitter taste is also influenced by genes. Some people are innately opposed to bitter flavors, while others have a liking for it. This is because of mutations in the genes that code for bitter taste receptors. These mutations can be passed down through generations, and some families may be more susceptible to bitterness than others.

The Function of Bitter Taste

Bitter taste receptors are located on the tongue and bind to bitter compounds in food. When these compounds are tasted, they can turn on a cascade of events that can lead to sickness or even death. However, not all bitter compounds are harmful. Some are naturally occurring and can actually be beneficial to the body. For example, bitter compounds in certain foods can stimulate the liver and thyroid, which regulate metabolic function.

The Combination of Taste Sensations

Bitterness is neither salty nor sour, but it may accompany these flavor sensations. Some foods, like coffee and dark chocolate, are naturally bitter. Others, like certain vegetables, can be bitter if not prepared correctly. The combination of different taste sensations can also affect how bitter a food tastes. For example, sugar can decrease the bitterness of coffee.

The Adaptation of Organisms

Over the years, organisms have adapted to their environment and the foods available to them. Bitter taste receptors have played a role in this adaptation. Animals that possess bitter taste receptors are better able to avoid harmful substances, which increases their chances of reproducing and passing on their genes. This has led to the selection of bitter taste receptors as a dominant trait in many species.

The Improved Survivability of Humans

Humans have also evolved to possess bitter taste receptors. This has allowed us to avoid harmful substances and increase our survivability. However, our liking for bitter foods has also led to the increased consumption of certain toxins, like alcohol and caffeine. In comparison to other animals, humans have a functional ability to taste bitter compounds, which has improved our survivability.

Exploring the World of Bitter Foods

Bitterness is a unique taste that can be found in a variety of foods, plants, and vegetables. Some of the most popular bitter foods include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, radishes, and arugula contain compounds called glucosinolates, which give them their bitter taste and are responsible for many of their health benefits.
  • Coffee: the actual taste of coffee is bitter, and it’s the reason why some people prefer to add sugar or cream to balance the flavor.
  • Dark chocolate: contains a small amount of bitterness due to the high percentage of cocoa solids.
  • Grapefruit: known for its sharp, bitter taste, grapefruit is an excellent source of vitamin C and other nutrients.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine: many herbs and plants used in traditional Chinese medicine are known for their bitter taste, including dandelion, burdock, and gentian root.

What Are the Health Benefits of Bitter Foods?

Research has shown that bitter foods can provide a range of health benefits, including:

  • Improve digestion: bitter compounds can stimulate the production of digestive enzymes and increase the flow of bile, which helps to break down fats and remove harmful toxins from the body.
  • Lower blood sugar levels: bitter foods can help to control blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Protect against cancer: some bitter compounds have been found to have anti-cancer (ideal for the risks posed by smoked meat) properties and can help to prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells.
  • Boost the immune system: bitter foods contain powerful antioxidants that can help to protect the body against harmful free radicals and strengthen the immune system.

How Can You Incorporate Bitter Foods into Your Diet?

While bitter foods may not be everyone’s favorite, there are many ways to incorporate them into your diet and enjoy their health benefits. Here are some tips:

  • Start small: if you’re new to bitter foods, start with mild options like arugula or dark chocolate and work your way up to stronger flavors.
  • Combine with other flavors: bitter foods can be balanced out by adding sweet, salty, or spicy ingredients. For example, try adding honey to your tea or serving grapefruit with a sprinkle of sugar.
  • Serve in different forms: bitter foods can be eaten raw, cooked, or blended into smoothies. Experiment with different methods to find what works best for you.
  • Use as a guide: bitter foods can be a helpful guide for making better food choices. For example, if you’re craving something sweet, try eating a bitter food instead to balance out your taste buds.
  • Be aware of availability: bitter foods may not be as readily available as other types of food, so be sure to check your local grocery store or farmer’s market for options.

What Should You Keep in Mind When Eating Bitter Foods?

While bitter foods can provide many health benefits, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Don’t overdo it: too much bitterness can actually harm your body and lead to digestive issues. Stick to small amounts and gradually increase your intake over time.
  • Remove toxins: some bitter foods, like raw kale or Brussels sprouts, contain compounds that can be harmful if eaten in large amounts. Cooking or rolling these foods can help to remove these toxins.
  • Balance with water: bitter foods can be dehydrating, so be sure to drink plenty of water when eating them.
  • Enjoyable experience: bitter foods can be an acquired taste, but with time and patience, they can become an enjoyable part of your overall diet.


So, there you have it- the definition, taste, and origin of bitterness. 

It’s not for everyone, but it can be a pleasant surprise. So, don’t be afraid to try something new!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.