This past week a vast number of online news and gossip sources have referenced an Austrian study that seems to have linked a love of bitter flavored foods such as black coffee, beer, and kale to having psychopathic, sadistic, and Machiavellian tendencies.
If you managed to miss hearing about this study, you can read more about it here: How You Drink Your Coffee ‘Could Point To Psychopathic Tendencies’.
In the study, participants were asked to rank a laundry list of foods with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors from strong dislike to strong like. Each participant then performed a personality assessment, and an assessment used to identify sadism. I have not been able to get access to the exact study to read it for myself, but according to the various article reporting on it, your love of coffee, hops, and deliciously bitter greens could indicate some unpleasant character associations.
Bitter is the flavor of the heart
Now to bring a slightly different perspective to the poor rap bitter is currently enduring, in Chinese medicine bitter is the flavor of the heart. The heart is our emperor or empress of the body. The heart governs the kingdom of our internal organs, feeling the pain of each organ, feeling all of our strong emotions, loves, passions, failures, disappointments, stress… The emotion associated with the heart is joy. The heart houses our shen, best translated as our consciousness, our spirit, or our soul as thought of in the Western world. While we are awake, our shen fills our eyes and you can see the health of our shen by the bright vitality present in our eyes…or lack thereof. Remember our eyes are with window to our soul. The heart and shen represents compassion, kindness, empathy.
Sadism, Machiavellianism, and narcissism are all signs of a pretty strong heart imbalance and would be considered pathologic. It makes me pause where the above study links these heart pathologies in Chinese medicine with self-selecting bitter flavor preferences. Perhaps these individuals are naturally drawn to flavors that will help nourish the heart and take their pathology down a notch.
The flavor of bitter has quite a few therapeutic effects in the body. Remember digestive bitters? Certain bitter foods can significantly aid in digestion and proper bile production by the liver. In the classics of Chinese medicine the flavor profile of each food, beverage, spice, and medicinal herb gets quite complicated. Not only are the simple flavors of bitter, salty, sour, spicy, bland, and sweet accessed, but each edible item is also categorized as yin or yang, hot, cold, cool, warm, or neutral. All of these qualities relate to how that food item interacts with different organs, natural body processes, emotions, and perceptions of the world. Think about how a sugar crash can drastically change your ability to think clearly, your energy level, and your outlook on life. Ever been around someone who’s hangry? All flavors can potentially influence our moods according to the ancient Chinese medical texts.
Bitter is the flavor of the heart. Therapeutically it is used to drain and dry substances in the body. It drains excessive heart fire (mania, extreme anxiousness, palpitations are a few examples). It dries dampness. Dampness is a huge factor in digestive health, relating to gas and bloating, sticky bowel movements, diabetes, foggy thinking, general sense of sluggishness, and thick, heavy sensations in your muscles. There is a huge reason that Starbucks coffee took off in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest as a whole. Damp weather slowly creates damp bodies, and nothing dries dampness like a good ol’ cup of black coffee.
Bitter can fight inflammation. Bitter also helps regulate rampant blood sugars with bitter melon on China being famous for helping patients suffering from diabetes. Along those lines, bitter reigns in the effects of eating too many sweet foods.
Just like any flavor, you can over do it. Eating too much bitter flavored foods, especially in the heat of summer can injure the heart. Eating too many bitter foods everyday can injure the bones according to the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica by Benksy, Clavey, and Stroger. This is the main text used for learning what individuals herbs do in general, what channels they travel too, and what do they do in the body. Bitter injuring the bones can be seen when looking at research supporting that too much coffee consumption can leach calcium from one’s bones.
In general, moderation of each flavor is key to health. Too much of a good thing, can truly be too much. if you aim to include all five flavors semi-equally in your meals, you will be nourishing yourself without overdoing one flavor. For the flavor salty, remember plenty of vegetables and meats have a natural saltiness, such as celery. Same with the flavor sweet. Root vegetables, squash, etc all have a strong natural sweetness to them. Eat the vegetable rainbow, and keep the variety high.
In closing, don’t knock on the flavor of the heart. Love on your kale, arugula, bitter melon. Drink some coffee or tea black if that’s your style. And no, it won’t turn you into a monster. For another article that dissects the issues with the study, and how there was a glaring 50% lack of correlation between what the researchers considered bitter, and what the participants considered bitter, check out the article link below.