Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is also commonly referred to as bitter gourd, karela, or balsam pear. As a fruit, bitter melon is low in calories and carbs and high in beneficial fiber. If you’re familiar with the use of bitter melon in folk medicine, you may be wondering whether or not modern-day research supports its ancient health claims. Here’s the latest on this bumpy, green fruit.
Bitter melon nutrition facts vary slightly based on which part of the plant is being consumed and whether it’s eaten raw or cooked. The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for 1 cup (124 grams) of cooked bitter melon without any added fat
- Calories: 24
- Fat: 0.2g
- Sodium: 392mg
- Carbohydrates: 5.4g
- Fiber: 2.5g
- Sugar: 2.4g
- Protein: 1g
Most of the calories in bitter melon come from carbohydrates. Since the total calorie content is so low, bitter melon carbs are also low. A cup of cooked bitter melon provides just over 5 grams of carbohydrate, about half of which is fiber (2.5 grams). Bitter melon also contains some naturally occurring sugar but is overall a low glycemic fruit.
There is very little fat in bitter melon. A cup of cooked bitter melon contains less than 1/2 gram of fat unless additional fat is added during cooking.
Like most fruits, bitter melon is not a significant source of protein.
Vitamins and Minerals
The micronutrients in bitter melon include vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and magnesium. Bitter melon also provides several B-vitamins and helpful antioxidants, like lutein and zeaxanthin
Bitter melon is often discussed in the context of diabetes management, however, study results for this purpose are inconsistent.2 Here’s the current evidence on bitter melon’s potential role in health promotion.
Reduces Abdominal Obesity
Although most of the data thus far has been performed on lab rats rather than humans, there is promising evidence suggesting the ability of bitter melon to reduce visceral fat storage. Bitter melon supplementation has been shown to reduce the proliferation of fat cells by down-regulating genes responsible for the generation of new adipose cells. A reduction in waist circumference with consumption of bitter melon has also been observed in preliminary human studies.3
Bitter melon contains a protein called Momordica anti-human immunovirus protein (MAP30). MAP30 has been shown to support a variety of immune system functions.4 By inhibiting HIV infection of T lymphocytes, boosting the number of natural killer cells and T helper cells, and increasing B cell production of immunoglobulins, bitter melon appears to support robust immunity.
Promotes Heart Health
Despite limited research on humans, bitter melon also shows promise in the area of cardiovascular health. Studies have demonstrated the ability of bitter melon extract to reduce cholesterol levels by promoting the excretion of cholesterol through bile acids.5
Furthermore, it is widely accepted that fruit and vegetable intake promotes heart health by providing fiber, potassium, and antioxidant vitamins. Increasing the variety and amount of fruits and vegetables in your meal plan, through foods like bitter melon, supports a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Prevents Cellular Damage
Bitter melon contains several antioxidant compounds that have been proven effective against free radicals. Multiple studies have found that both the leaves and fruit of bitter melon are beneficial phenolic compounds with the ability to reduce harmful oxidants.3 Although this has not yet been proven to prevent or treat disease, it suggests the need for further investigation into areas including aging and cancer prevention.
The vitamin A in bitter melon may help prevent eye conditions, like age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Specifically, lutein and zeaxanthin are known to accumulate in the retina, providing localized protection against oxidative damage.6 Furthermore, bitter melon contains vitamins E and C which are also associated with the prevention of AMD.
Bitter melon is not a commonly known allergy, however, hypersensitivities can occur.7 If you notice symptoms after consuming or handling bitter melon, ask your doctor for an evaluation.
Health experts advise that pregnant women avoid bitter melon as it can cause premature contractions and miscarriage.8 Anyone taking P-glycoprotein substrates or Cytochrome P450 substrates may also have issues with bitter melon. Bitter melon can increase the effectiveness of diabetes medications. Therefore, it may not be safe to use when taken with other glucose-lowering agents or insulin.
Diarrhea, vomiting, and headaches have also been associated with bitter melon use.9 Increase your consumption gradually to see how your body responds to this new food.
There are two varieties of bitter melon: Indian bitter melon and Chinese bitter melon.10 Compared to Indian bitter melon, Chinese bitter melon has smoother ridges, fewer warts, and tastes less bitter.
Along with being eaten raw as a fruit, bitter melon can also be squeezed into juice. Bitter melon extract or it’s powdered seeds can be purchased as herbal supplements or teas.9
When It’s Best
You’re not likely to find bitter melon in most chain grocery stores. However, many Asian markets carry it all year long. You may find it at the end of the summer or the beginning of fall at your local farmer’s market.11
Different types of bitter melon have different color variations. In general, if you buy a green bitter melon, it is probably not ripe yet. However, many cooks utilize bitter melon that is not fully ripe in recipes. Despite being a fruit, bitter melon may be cooked like a vegetable depending on the dish. If you’ve never had bitter melon, researching cultural recipes or speaking to the farmers who grow it can help you discover interesting ways to use it.
Storage and Food Safety
Store bitter melon in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it, since it tends to go bad quickly.11 Before cutting into it, be sure to wash it well under running water and dry with a paper towel to remove any dirt or bacteria. Once cut, bitter melon should be stored like other fruits, in the refrigerator for 3–5 days. Discard if you see any signs of slime, mold, or degradation.
How to Prepare
To cook bitter melon, first remove the waxy skin with a peeler or a paring knife. Many cooks boil bitter melon, steam it, or use it in a stir-fry. Others hollow out the melon and stuff with ingredients such as pork sausage or chilies.11
The bitter flavor of this fruit is an acquired taste. If you don’t enjoy the bitterness, try soaking the fruit in salt water for 30–45 minutes before cooking with it.
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