If you enjoy fancy, handmade artisan cocktails, you've probably had bitters in some of them. That's where the herbal concoctions most frequently pop up. But they can be used for more than just adding a 'bite' to a mixed drink. They also work to assist digestion when taken before or after a meal, and they are frequently being recognized by chefs as a missing but important part of the modern palate. 

The argument is that in the last half-decade, we have upped the salt, the sugar and the fat in almost everything we eat. But we've forgotten about the more complex flavors that balance those out — and they're importance for our overall health. 

About once a week or so, I end up eating something that makes me a little nauseated or feeling a bit bloated. (I've been trying to figure out what those foods are so that I can avoid them, but so far haven't been able to.) In those cases, I've been taking a couple droppers of Urban Moonshine's bitters. (I go for the maple flavor.) You need to take them straight (and not hide their flavors) so they can work most effectively, according to bitters advocates, because the bitter flavor itself stimulates digestive enzymes.

It has worked for me, and the few times I've been away from home and haven't had the bitters with me, I've noticed it takes longer for the discomfort to pass.

Bitters can be used for other reasons: to alleviate heartburn, calm gas, detox the liver and curb sugar cravings. I get a pretty intense sweet craving in the afternoons, and I've noticed that when I use bitters (I mix with a small amount of sparkling water), it seems to somehow "reset" my tongue. And if you take some post-dinner, I don't feel the need for dessert then either. 

"Just as sweets cause blood sugar, insulin, and hunger to spike and then dip—often leading, long term, to obesity and Type 2 diabetes—research indicates bitter foods can have the opposite effect, moderating both hunger and blood sugar," writes Dr. Andrew Weil

Of course, you can eat bitter foods too (and they are certainly part of a healthy diet). Dandelion leaves (one of the most nutritionally dense veggies out there), escarole, olives, yellow grapefruit, Brussels sprouts and coffee are all bitter choices. You'll see them on more restaurant menus in the coming years as bitter foods — which take a slightly more mature palate (kids are usually especially sensitive to bitter flavors, but adults can appreciate them) — make a comeback. 

"In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking. Without bitterness we lose a way to balance sweetness, and by rejecting it we limit our range of flavors. Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity," writes Chef Jennifer Mclagan in The Wall Street Journal

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.