Written by Halley Furlong-Mitchell
Taste. It’s what tells us when something is salty, umami or sweet, and allows our bodies to determine what we like and don’t like. But while we are all aware of taste’s importance, you may not know the science behind it.
How does taste work?
Each person contains between 2,000 and 10,000 taste buds, bundles of taste receptor cells that are found on your tongue, throat, and esophagus as well as on the roof and walls of your mouth. While the average number of taste buds is 10,000, they actually vary person to person, and even become less sensitive as we grow older –– which many experts believe is the reason that we learn to love certain foods when we’re adults that we may have hated when we were children (brussels sprouts, anyone?). Each one of those taste buds contain microvilli, microscopic cellular membrane protrusions that act like bristles on a brush. Microvilli interpret each food’s taste and send that information directly to your brain.
It’s those taste receptor cells that distinguish 5 distinct qualities of taste –– sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory –– which are then sent to your brain. The most interesting, and perhaps hardest working, of those tastes is bitterness, which actually helps with digestion. Here’s how:
Our bitter taste receptors, or T2Rs, are the most complex ones in our body, and when stimulated, send a nerve signal directly to critical areas of our brain. It first reaches the part of our cortex that perceives bitterness, then at our hypothalamus, which relays the bitter sensation message. This message travels down to our liver, pancreas, salivary glands and stomach, where it encourages the production of digestive juices and enzymes. Digestive enzymes are essential for helping our bodies break down food, so when they go into production, it’s easier for your body to process a meal. The bitter signal also engages the valves at both ends of the stomach, which close up in response.
There are T2R receptors in your gut passage as well, although they work differently down there. When those T2Rs encounter bitter compounds, hormones are secreted into our bloodstream that contribute to feelings of fullness and satiety.
Bitter signals and actual bitters
If you’ve ever tried to make an Old Fashioned at home, chances are that you’ve seen “bitters” as a required ingredient, and perhaps have even bought a small bottle already. It’s helpful to think of today’s bitters as liquid spices, powerful formulas containing concentrated extracts of herbs, flowers, seeds, and roots. Many liqueurs even come from the tradition of cocktail bitters, such as Amaro, an Italian aperitif that literally translates to “bitter.”
But digestive bitters have a far longer history, with initial records of them going as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who were reported to have mixed in herbs with wine. The use of bitters in medicine were further developed in the middle ages, who began the practice of concentrating specific herbs and roots as an aspect of medical treatment. Bitters really hit their stride in the 19th century, however, with the development of products like Angostura and Peychaud’s. The idea behind products like Amaro and other aperitifs, is that they would be taken after a meal, to help support digestion.
This was the inspiration for our DIGEST START, an everyday tincture that uses ingredients such as licorice root, apple cider vinegar, burdock root, and dandelion root, which stimulate those T2Rs. These ingredients have been used traditionally as digestive remedies for years, with licorice root even being a staple in Ayurveda. Together, the formula is intended to be taken 15 minutes before a meal, to help aid in sluggish digestion.