Bitter Flavors

According to Mintel, the new age “foodie” movement has shifted from a small group of niche consumers and restaurants to nearly three quarters of all American adults admitting they are interested in food and food culture. As this understanding grows, so does the search for new flavors and authentically regional preparations. The flavor profile we call bitterness often conjures up images of burnt food, fouled up preparations, or otherwise unappetizing flavors. Yet the reality is bitterness adds elements of sophistication that appeal to the palate, and when balanced properly, are very appealing and punctuate a dish, elevating the other flavor components.

The bitter profile is a result of chemical compounds known as phenols, flavonoids, terpines, and other in the same class. From nature’s perspective, they are a protection mechanism designed to guarantee a plants survival. What we have found through research is that foods rich in these compounds - phenol-rich berries, tea and chocolate, or those full of flavonoids, like citrus, tea and wine — are often the most health-sustaining. For chefs who are reaching toward bitter greens, colorful fruits, and root vegetables to get more “good for you” on the menu, momentum is growing. The Cheesecake Factory for example recently released their SkinnyLicious menu, featuring a number of salad recipes whose key ingredient is some bitter component that the dish “would not be complete without,” according to their executive chef Bob Okura.

While consumer demand for new and interesting flavor profiles can be challenging to product developers, it also offers an abundance of opportunities. Having a unique flavor is a great way to differentiate a product from the competition. “Americans do not seek out bitter,” says Rich Collins, president of California Vegetable Specialties, but when paired with the right ingredients or cooking techniques it is very well received. When properly incorporated, diners get excited about the nuances and sophistication that accompanies a bitter flavor, feeling less generic and more exciting.