Bitter Orange Benefits, Uses & History

The bitter orange tree is native to Asia and various parts of the tree have been used in medicine including the peel, flower, leak, fruit and fruit juice.

The most common part of the bitter orange that has been used is the essential oil that is extracted from the peel.

Often used to help with obesity, athletic performance and indigestion, bitter orange has been used for centuries in medicines around the world thanks to its many benefits.

Bitter Orange Benefits, Uses & History

However, this hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy which is mainly due to the active ingredient synephrine found in bitter orange.

Synephrine is very similar to ephedra as both can have negative effects on the heart if too much is consumed by increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes as well as high blood pressure.

Ephedra was banned by the FDA in 2004 because of this and although synephrine hasn’t been banned yet, bitter orange can only be found in very small quantities in dietary supplements and weight loss pills to reduce these side effects.

Bitter orange has been banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) due to its performance enhancing qualities, a well known benefit from synephrine intake. 

When used in cooking, bitter orange is often used as a flavoring agent. The most popular food that bitter orange is made in is marmalade as well as various liqueurs such as Cointreau, Curacao, Grand Marnier and Triple Sec.

It helps to bring that bittersweet flavor to a variety of cuisines, especially Iranian and Mexican foods. When dried, the peel can also be used for seasoning.

Depending on what part of the orange is used and how much is used, it can have varying benefits and side effects which are important to take note of. The main side effect is that it can cause the heart to beat faster so stop consuming if this begins to happen to you.

Alternatively, the major benefit of bitter orange is that it can help improve your digestive and nervous systems. 

We’ve gathered everything you need to know about bitter orange and its benefits, uses and history as well as an FAQ to give you a better understanding about how bitter orange works and what to look out for.

Bitter Orange Benefits

Bitter oranges have an array of benefits depending on what you are looking for. Often used in traditional Chinese medicine, bitter oranges can help with indigestion, nausea and constipation.

They are also used to help with heartburn, nasal congestion, weight loss, appetite stimulation or suppression and athletic performance.

However, the most popular benefits that bitter orange is used to deal with is respiratory support and digestive support. The benefits that bitter orange provides tends to vary with how it is congested and what species of orange it is.

Therefore, it’s always best to do thorough research into what you are wanting to get from the bitter orange before consumption. 

Bitter Orange History

The Latin name for the bitter orange is the Citrus X aurantium but it is known by a variety of other names which includes the bigarade orange, marmalade orange, seville orange and sour orange.

The bitter orange is a different species to the usual sweet orange which is known as Citrus X sinensis.

You may notice that both species contain an “X” which is due to the hybridization that is often found in these kinds of fruits and is included in a variety of other citrus species including lemon (Citrus X limon), grapefruit (Citrus X paradisi) and key lime (Citrus X aurantifolia).  

The bitter orange specifically belongs to the Rutaceae family along with other citrus fruits as well as medicinal plants such as Prickly Ash, Rue and Buchu.

Native to both tropical and subtropical regions in India and China, the bitter orange was originally used in traditional Chinese medicine thanks to its many benefits making it commonly used among European medicine when trade began.

Introduced in America during the 16th, bitter orange is used throughout the world and is grown in tropical climates worldwide making it more accessible than it once was. 

Bitter Orange Uses

As mentioned before, the bitter orange finds its origins within traditional Chinese medicine and eventually found its way into European practices and herbal medicines.

The most common part of the bitter orange that is used in both is the fruit rind from which oils are extracted and prepped.

The benefits of this herb is that the oil can help release bile from the gallbladder and help to develop a healthy digestive system, particularly when digesting fats as well as promoting regular bowel movements thanks to the intensity of the oil.

Another popular use of the bitter orange oil is to help smooth the muscle in the GI tract and orange marmalade that is traditionally made with bitter oranges can help with promoting a healthy digestive system when consumed on a regular basis. 

Bitter oranges are not usually eaten raw and are cooked and processed before being incorporated into medicines, cooking and aromatherapy.

This means that the oils from the rind can be less concentrated and therefore less sharp and acidic when consumed raw.

If it is the rind that you are wanting to incorporate into your diet then it can be cooked, extracted or expressed, meaning that you will produce an essential oil which is ideal for aromatherapy.

The bitter orange can be cooling energetically whereas the volatile oils can help with muscular contraction as they can calm any intensity as well as calming the nervous system.

This makes it a popular choice with aromatherapists in a variety of treatments. When used as an essential oil, it was found to help maintain the health of GI tract tissues as it supported the gastric mucus production.

This is thanks to its high concentration of monoterpene limonene. Bitter orange also contains β-myrcene which has support cellular glutathione levels as well as maintaining the gastric mucosa. 

There has been some controversy when it comes to incorporating bitter orange into your diet. This is due to the high synephrine content which can cause high blood pressure and increase the chances of heart attacks and strokes.

This is the main reason why it is included in very small amounts in dietary supplements and pills. Even in traditional Chinese medicines, only a small amount of bitter orange would suffice due to its intensity.

If you have high blood pressure or are at high risk of heart attacks or strokes, then you should consult a doctor before consuming any bitter orange in any form. 

Active Constituents of the Bitter Orange

Despite being consumed in small quantities, there are a number of active constituents that can be found within the bitter orange.

The most important to take note of are: alkaloids (p-synephrine), flavonoids (hesperidin, naringin and neohesperidin), furanocoumarins (bergapten and oxypeucedanin), polymethoxyflavones (nobiletin and tangeretin) and terpenes (limonene, linalool, and myrcene). 

Important precautions to consider

The essential oil extracted from the rind of the bitter orange should never be ingested during pregnancy or lactation under any circumstance due to the high synephrine content.

There are many substitutes that can be used in place of bitter orange in terms of taste which includes: sweet orange, lime and grapefruit.

However, for those who are pregnant, always make sure these juices and fruits are consumed in moderation as they can be quite acidic when a lot is consumed in a short amount of time.

As always, always consult your doctor if you are in any doubt and want further advice. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are bitter oranges safe to eat?

Bitter oranges are safe to eat if consumed in small doses. This is because they contain synephrine which can increase blood pressure.

If you are at high risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks or strokes then you need to avoid eating bitter oranges. A doctor will be able to determine whether they are suitable for you to eat.

Bear in mind that bitter orange is usually found in weight loss pills and capsules. As noted in this article, bitter oranges are not usually consumed raw but are found in small quantities within dietary supplements and pills. 

How much bitter orange is safe?

When it comes to calculating how much bitter orange is safe, this is all dependent on your current health before you consume any.

Due to its high synephrine, it can be consumed in doses between 30.6 mg to 98 mg but if you are in doubt then seek assistance from a health professional who will be able to point you in the right direction. 

Is bitter orange good for skin?

Bitter orange can be both consumed as well as applied directly to the skin.

When the oil from the rind is applied to the skin, it can help treat an array of conditions, especially fungal skin infections which includes athlete’s foot, jock itch and ringworm.

Thanks to the concentrated acidity, only a small amount needs to be applied to the skin in order to help soothe the area.