The Arugula Effect: Bitter Food Benefits

What do arugula, black tea, chicory, endive, and white grapefruit have in common? (Besides the fact they may not be your favorite foods?)  They are among the better-for-you bitter foods that should be in all our pantries and fridges. Besides the fact that bitter-tasting plant foods add nuance and complexity and sophistication (say professional chefs) to a dish, they are rich in health-boosting compounds that protect us from killer diseases like cancer and heart disease.  These compounds include the polyphenols in cacao, the curcumin in turmeric, the tannins in cashews and walnuts, the terpenes in orange and lemon peel, and the glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts and kale. As an added benefit, many astringent foods are low in calories while high in fiber. Win-win.

.You may be an anti-astringent sweet tooth sort of eater, but bitter really is better. In fact, it ranks as one of our five basic human taste sensations: alongside sweet, sour, salty, and savory (or umami). And before you make a face, know that not all bitterness is the same. Bitterness can be mild, or assertive. Early-season greens for example will be less bitter, even sharp–sweet than the late-season sharply bitter arugula, kale or broccoli raab of the same variety

Our best source of super healthy bitter foods is probably leafy and root vegetable greens, specifically these 13 fairly available all-stars. How many have you stuck your fork, spoon, or knife into lately?

  1. Arugula
  2. Broccoli Raab
  3. Collards
  4. Beet greens
  5. Dandelion greens
  6. Endive
  7. Escarole
  8. Chicory/Frisee
  9. Turnip greens
  10. Kale (available in many varieties from Curly to Russian Red to Dinosaur Kale)
  11. Mustard greens
  12. (which is actually a red and white green)
  13. Watercress (a cousin to mustard greens

And eating better with bitter doesn’t stop with greens. Other mouth-puckering foods that are not leafy greens that deserve a place in your diet include—

Citrus Peel




Green Tea

What’s the secret ingredient?  Many so-called bitter vegetables are members of the Brassica family, also known as cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower even radishes. Famous for their cancer-fighting potential. These foods contain chemical compounds known as glucosinolates which have been shown to slow the growth and spread of cancer cells in animal studies.  These compounds also aid your liver in the toxin removal process.

Cruciferous vegetables and other astringent greens are so good for you because they are packed with an array of nutrients, including potassium, calcium, vitamins A and C,  (a serving of kale has as much ascorbic acid as an orange), fiber, and even some protein.  Good news for dairy avoiders, bitter greens (especially collard greens and broccoli) are an excellent source of calcium.  Bitter greens –from arugula to radish leaves –have been reported to purify the blood, aid in weight reduction, cleanse the skin, help prevent anemia. Kale, for example, contains a sequestrant that binds bile and helps to reduce cholesterol. Bitter plant foods also provide prebiotic material for gut health. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria in your gut, helping your friendly bacteria proliferate and survive. The rich supply of antioxidants in this family of foods helps protect your cells from damage, thus lowering the risk of cognitive decline, signs of aging and some chronic diseases.

There’s more. Bitter greens also supply magnesium, a mineral that helps control the stress and anxiety that jangle nerves and disrupt sleep patterns, according to the Institute for Functional Medicine.  Indeed, half a cup of cooked bitter greens provides 20% of your daily need for this nutrient which is in low supply in the average American diet. And watercress (which is spicier than it is bitter), has been deemed the world’s most nutrient-rich vegetable according to the CDC, with 40 different flavonoids, linked to a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease. Watercress sandwiches anyone?

You can even get those bitter benefits without the “bitter.”

How to De- Bitter your Greens: 4 Tips

Blanch them: Blanching greens (especially tougher leaves like collards) before cooking removes some of the bitterness. Be sure to toss the blanching water.

Use Flavor spikes: Balance the bitterness of greens by adding spices, garlic, sweet veggies like squash or salty, smoky seasonings or cheese.

Add acid:  A splash of vinegar or lemon juice before serving can help balance bitter tastes and brighten the final flavor.

A Little Salt?  Saltiness can help temper bitterness. Add your favorite salt or a salty ingredient like anchovies.

 Here are three ways to enjoy those greens– cold, warm, and cooked.

Stir-Fried Mustard Greens

 2 tablespoons coconut or peanut oil

2 cloves of crushed chopped garlic

Pinch of chili powder

2-1/2 cups of mustard greens, washed and coarsely chopped

1 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. sesame oil

½ bouillon cube

  • Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili pepper and stir fry for about a minute, avoiding burning the garlic.
  • Add the mustard greens, turning the heat up to high. Add sugar, sesame oil, and salt and   bouillon.  Stir and mix well.
  • Cover and continue cooking briefly. Uncover, stirring. Correct seasoning if needed.  Plate and serve.

Options: Substitute Broccoli Raab or turnip greens for the mustard greens; use miso in place of bouillon; fold in some slivered radish before serving for a bit of crunch and color.

Serves 4.


3 cups water or matcha green tea

3 cups frozen mango or pineapple

4 cups fresh spinach

2 cups kale coarsely chopped

Add ingredients to blender or processor in the order above. Blend until smooth. Chill.

Options: Add ½ inch of minced or grated fresh ginger with the fruit; add one small finely chopped or shredded Granny Smith apple for flavor and fiber.

4 servings


 Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, chopped into 1-inch chunks
  • 4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 3 cups fresh arugula,
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk or dairy milk
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Bitter garnish: sprinkle with a bit of fresh lemon zest and/or a few some broccoli leaves

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, and sauté the onion and celery until about 7 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant.  Add the chopped potatoes, water or broth, and salt and bring the liquid to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat and cover to let the vegetables simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes.

When potatoes are tender, add arugula to the pot and stir until bright green, (about 3 minutes). Place some of the mixture into a blender and process until smooth.  Blend in batches. Return soup to the saucepan over medium heat and stir in milk. Season with additional salt, if needed and pepper. Add garnishes.

Options: Use coconut cream in place of milk for a creamier soup; use watercress in place of arugula; process with 3 crushed ice cubes for a bit of icy froth.

-Frances Goulart

Photo by Madish Radish on Unsplash

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1 comment on “The Arugula Effect: Bitter Food Benefits

  1. Robert Bolon

    Welcomed information to enhance our culinary endeavors. Very well -done, cheers.

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