Bitter leaf: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

51mJu+FMN5L._SY355_Recently, the western world has been totally fascinated with the health properties of bitter leaf. There are so many articles written about this particular leaf. Nowadays, we can even get it in supplement form. This is amazing! I particularly remember growing up helping my mom prepare this vegetable. You had to boil and wash and boil and wash again in order to wash the bitterness away. It seems as  though the complete nutritional value is in bitterness. So why did we struggle so much to get the bitterness out?  One thing is for sure, it is rightly called bitter leaf because it is truly bitter!


Scientifically known as vernonia amygdalina, bitter leaf is derived from a shrub or small tree that can reach twenty-three feet in height when fully grown. The herb is an indigenous African plant.

One thing everyone agrees on is that bitter leaf has  many medicinal benefits. But in order to enjoy these benefits, you must consume it fresh. Let’s dive more into this by looking at what some credible scientific studies have stated regarding this leaf of wonder. 

Take a look at what Farombi and Owoeye stated in their study, “Antioxidative and Chemopreventive Properties of Vernonia Amygdalina and Garcinia Biflavonoid”. They stated that “in the wild, chimpanzees have been observed to ingest the leaves when suffering from parasitic infections” [19–21]. Many herbalists and native doctors in Africa recommend its aqueous extracts for their patients as a treatment for a variety of ailments ranging from emesis, nausea, diabetes, loss of appetite, dysentery and other gastrointestinal tract problems to sexually transmitted diseases and diabetes mellitus among others [22] (Figure 1).


In their study current perspectives on the medicinal potentials of Vernonia amygdalina DeIjah et all state that “it is probably the most used medicinal plant in the genus Vernonia. Traditional medicine practitioners use the plant as an anti-helminth, anti-malarial, laxative, digestive tonic, appetizer, febrifuge and for the topical treatment of wounds. Scientific research in the last few decades has scrutinized these claims and found that extracts from the plant have numerous phytotherapeutic properties. Extracts from V. amygdalina Del. have been shown to have antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal, antiplasmodial etc), anti-cancer/tumor, antioxidant, hypoglycemic/anti-diabetic, oxytocic, hepato- and nephro- protective, serum lipid modulation, and other properties.” This scientific study/research and many others support the local claim that bitter leaf is a must have in your kitchen, if you wish to pursue a lifestyle of optimum wellness. 

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Now hold this  thought for a second. Bitter leaf is sounding like a must have so far right? Don’t conclude until we talk about these claims of heavy metal presence in this leaf. 

In their article “Heavy Metal Content in Bitter Leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) Grown Along Heavy Traffic Routes in Port Harcourt”, Ogbonda and Kabari also hail the goodness of bitter leaf. They say “Remedies made from bitter leaf are used in treating twenty-five common ailments in sub- Saharan African, these include common problems such as fever, and different kinds of intestine complaints, as well as parasite-induced diseases like malaria. Bitter leaf also helps to cleanse such vital organs of the body like the liver and the kidney. Bitter leaf is also used in the treatment of skin infections such as ringworm, rashes and eczema.” 

But they caution “bitter leaf and other vegetables contain both essential and toxic metals over a wide range of concentrations” (Radwan and Salama, 2006). They are concerned about heavy metal content in bitter leaf because “heavy metals are associated with myriad adverse health effects, including allergic reactions, nephrotoxicity, and cancer.” They conclude this study with a worrisome public safety concern; “the observed common practice of cultivating vegetables in the soil along heavy traffic routes in Port Harcourt will in the long run endanger consumers’ health since the ingested heavy metals bioaccumulates in the human body.”


It seems to me from all these studies that bitter leaf is a must have because of all the health benefits it has. But we must be very mindful where the bitter leaf we consume was cultivated. This aspect of consumption is extremely crucial. The type of soil and area plays an important role in producing the right product for consumption. So enjoy your bitter leaf, but get to know where it was grown. Enjoy!






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