Bitter foods sometimes get a bad rap in the culinary world since their strong flavors can be off-putting to picky eaters.
However, bitter foods are incredibly nutritious and contain a wide variety of plant-based chemicals that have significant health benefits.
Some of these benefits include a lower risk of many diseases — including cancer, heart disease and diabetes — and better gut, eye and liver health.
Here are 9 bitter foods that are good for your health.
Bitter melon is a green, bumpy, cucumber-shaped melon that tastes extremely bitter.
It’s eaten in Asian, African and Caribbean countries but less popular in other areas.
Bitter melon is packed with phytochemicals like triterpenoids, polyphenols and flavonoids that have been shown to slow the growth of various types of cancers in both test-tube and animal studies (1, 2).
It’s also used in natural medicine to help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
One 4-week study found that consuming 2,000 mg of dried, powdered bitter melon every day significantly lowered blood sugar levels in people with diabetes — yet not as much as a conventional diabetes drug (3).
A larger review found mixed results in humans and determined that evidence is insufficient to recommend bitter melon supplements to people with diabetes (4).
Summary Bitter melon is packed with natural plant-based chemicals that may help prevent cancer, reduce oxidative stress and lower blood sugar levels.
These foods contain compounds called glucosinolates, which give them their bitter taste and are responsible for many of their health benefits (8).
Some researchers believe that this discrepancy may be due to genetic differences between people, as well as natural differences in glucosinolate levels due to vegetable growing conditions and cooking methods. More research is needed (11, 13).
In addition to their potential cancer-fighting effects, glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables help your liver enzymes process toxins more effectively, reducing their negative impacts on your body (14).
While no official recommendations have been set, some research suggests that eating at least five servings of cruciferous vegetables per week provides the most health benefits (8).
Summary Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage contain powerful cancer-fighting compounds and can improve your liver’s ability to process toxins.
You may think that dandelions are just a garden weed, but their leaves are edible and highly nutritious.
Dandelion greens are medium-sized, vibrantly green leaves with irregular edges. They can be eaten raw in salads, sauteed as a side dish or included in soups and pastas.
As they are very bitter, dandelion greens are often balanced out with other flavors like garlic or lemon.
Though little research exists on the specific health benefits of dandelion greens, they’re rich in many vitamins and minerals, including calcium, manganese, iron and vitamins A, C and K (15).
What’s more, dandelion greens are a great source of the prebiotics inulin and oligofructose, which promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria (17).
Summary Dandelion greens are rich in vitamins and minerals, contain carotenoids that benefit eye health and are a source of prebiotics that encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
While the flesh and juice of citrus fruits like lemons, oranges and grapefruits have a sweet or tart flavor, the outer peel and white pith are quite bitter.
This is due to the presence of flavonoids, which protect the fruit from being eaten by pests but have many health benefits in humans.
In fact, citrus peels contain a higher concentration of flavonoids than any other part of the fruit (18).
Two of the most abundant citrus flavonoids are hesperidin and naringin — both of which are powerful antioxidants (19).
Test-tube and animal research suggests that citrus flavonoids may help fight cancer by reducing inflammation, improving detoxification and slowing the growth and spread of cancer cells, but human research is needed (20).
If you’d like to include citrus peel in your diet, it can be grated and enjoyed as zest, dried and used in seasoning mixes or even candied and added to desserts.
Summary Citrus peel has a bitter flavor due to its high concentration of flavonoids. These powerful antioxidants may reduce inflammation and help protect against cancer.
Cranberries are tart, bitter red berries that can be enjoyed raw, cooked, dried or juiced.
They contain a type of polyphenol known as type-A proanthocyanidins, which can prevent bacteria from sticking to surfaces, such as your bodily tissues.
This may be beneficial for reducing bacterial tooth decay, lowering your risk of H. pylori infections in the stomach and even preventing E. coli infections in your gut and urinary tract (21, 22, 23, 24).
While many of these studies were conducted in test tubes or animals, results from human-based research is promising.
One 90-day study found that drinking about two cups (500 ml) of cranberry juice every day helped eliminate H. pylori stomach infections three times more effectively than a placebo (22).
Other studies have shown that a daily dose of cranberry pills containing at least 36 mg of proanthocyanidins can significantly reduce the frequency of urinary tract infections (UTIs), especially in women (25, 26, 27, 28).
In addition to their antibacterial properties, cranberries are incredibly rich in antioxidants. In fact, they contain the highest concentration out of 24 of the most commonly eaten fruits (29).
Summary Cranberries are rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that help prevent various types of bacterial infections and may improve heart health.
Cocoa powder is made from the beans of the cacao plant and tastes extremely bitter when unsweetened.
Often used in a variety of desserts, it’s also mixed with cocoa butter, cocoa liqueur, vanilla and sugar to make chocolate.
Research has found that people who eat chocolate at least five times per week have a 56% lower risk of heart disease, compared to those who don’t eat chocolate at all (31).
This is likely due to the polyphenols and antioxidants found in cocoa, which can widen blood vessels and reduce inflammation, protecting your heart (32).
Summary Cocoa is rich in polyphenols, antioxidants and trace minerals, and regular consumption may protect against heart disease.
Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages around the world and the top source of antioxidants in the American diet (35).
Like most bitter foods, coffee is packed with polyphenols that give the brew its unique taste.
One of the most abundant polyphenols in coffee is chlorogenic acid, a strong antioxidant likely responsible for many of coffee’s health benefits, including reduced oxidative damage and a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes (36, 37, 38).
Studies show that drinking 3–4 cups of coffee per day can reduce your risks of death, cancer and heart disease by 17%, 15% and 18% respectively, compared to drinking no coffee at all (39).
A separate analysis found that each cup of coffee consumed per day reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes by 7% (40).
Summary Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and polyphenols. Drinking 3–4 cups per day may reduce your risk of death, heart disease, diabetes and neurological disorders.
Green tea is another popular beverage consumed around the world.
It has a naturally bitter flavor due to its catechin and polyphenol contents.
The most well-known of these catechins is called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG.
While some research indicates that regular green tea drinkers have a lower risk of developing certain cancers, not all studies have shown a benefit (45).
Green tea also contains a variety of polyphenols that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Together, these compounds reduce damage from free radicals and decrease inflammation, which may reduce your risk of heart disease (46, 47, 48).
In fact, drinking just one cup of green tea daily is associated with a nearly 20% lower risk of heart attack (49).
Summary Green tea contains catechins and polyphenols that provide many health benefits, including possible cancer protection and a lower risk of heart disease.
Red wine contains two main types of polyphenols — proanthocyanidins and tannins — which give wine its deep color and bitter taste.
The combination of alcohol and these polyphenols may reduce your risk of heart disease by decreasing cholesterol oxidation, reducing blood clotting and expanding blood vessels (51).
Some newer research has also shown that red wine may be good for your gut.
One small study found that drinking two glasses of red wine daily for one month increased the number of healthy gut bacteria (52).
What’s more, these changes in gut bacteria were directly associated with lower cholesterol levels and reduced inflammation.
Keep in mind that drinking alcohol in excess can lead to liver damage and other health problems, so moderation is important.
Summary Red wine contains polyphenols that have been linked to better heart and gut health. Drinking red wine may also boost longevity and reduce your risk of diabetes and osteoporosis.
Bitter-tasting foods each have their own unique health benefits, including protection against cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as reduced inflammation and oxidative stress.
Most of these benefits come from the wide array of polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and even prebiotics.
Since there are so many types of bitter foods to choose from, it’s easy to include at least some of them in your diet to reap multiple health benefits.