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Bitter gourd (melon) nutrition facts

Bitter gourd (balsam pear/ bitter melon) is a young, tender, edible fruit-pod in the Momordica genus of climbing vines. Although its bitter taste might turn some people away from it, in-fact, it really can sweeten your health through virtue of its disease preventing and health promoting phyto chemical compounds.

Botanically, it belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, in the genus; Momordica, and is a member of the same family as squash, watermelon, cantaloupes, cucumber, etc, belongs to. Scientific name: Momordica charantia. Some of the related varieties are balsam pear, cundeamor, la-kwa, etc.

bitter melons
Bitter melons (Momordica charantia). Oriental variety. Note for the uneven pebble like longitudinally arranged ridges. The ends are round and blunt.

Bitter melon is one of popular edible pod vegetable in many Asian countries. It is grown widely as a field crop as well as backyard vegetable and, in fact, is among the most bitter tasting of all culinary vegetables.

bitter-melons in a vine
Bitter gourds hanging down in a vine. This variety commonly found in Indian subcontinent. Note for pointed ends.

Bitter melon is a temperate/tropical vegetable probably originated in South-East Asia. Like in other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, it too is a fast-growing, trailing or climbing vine with thin stems and tendrils which require trellis to support their climbing vines.

Bitter gourd pods are characterized with soft lengthwise ridges and uneven pebbly surface. Depending up on the cultivar type, its immature pods can be light to dark green and have oblong or oval shapes with a pointed tip at the blossom end. Internally, the flesh is white with rough edged seeds, somewhat similar to ridge gourd seeds in appearence. As the fruits begin to mature, they gradually become hard, turn yellow or brown in color.

Health benefits of Bitter gourd

  • Bitter melon is very low in calories, carrying just 17 calories per 100 g. Nevertheless, its pods are rich sources of phytonutrients like dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

  • Bitter melon notably contains phyto-nutrient, polypeptide-P, a plant insulin known to lower blood sugar levels. In addition, it composes hypoglycemic agent called charantin. Charantin increases glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis inside the cells of liver, muscle and adipose tissue. Together, these compounds may have been thought to be responsible for blood sugar levels reduction in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.

  • Fresh pods are an excellent source of folates, carrying about 72 µg/100g (18% of RDA). Vitamin folate when taken by mothers during their early pregnancy time, would help reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in the newborn babies.

  • Fresh bitter melon is an excellent source of vitamin-C (100 g of raw pod provides 84 mg or about 140% of RDI). Vitamin-C is one of the powerful natural antioxidants which helps scavenge deleterious free radicals from the human body.

  • Further, it is an excellent source of health benefiting flavonoids such as ß-carotene, a-carotene, lutein, and zea-xanthin. It also contains a good amount of vitamin-A. Together, these compounds help act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that play a role in aging, cancers and various disease processes.

  • Bitter melon stimulates easy digestion and peristalsis of food through the bowel until it is excreted from the body. Thus, it helps in relieving indigestion and constipation problems.

  • In addition, it is a moderate source of B-complex vitamins such as niacin (vitamin B-3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5), pyridoxine (vitamin B-6) and minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium, manganese and magnesium.

  • Early laboratory tests suggest that certain phyto-chemical compounds in bitter melon might be effective in the treatment of HIV infection.

Selection and storage

Fresh bitter melon pods can be available in the markets round the seasons. When you buy them, look for fresh, bright pods that feature dark-green, without any cuts, or blemishes on their surfaces. Choose young, tender immature pods. Immature-fruits are least bitter since their bitter level increases as the pods mature.

At home, fresh bitter gourd pods can be placed in plastic zip pouch and stored in vegetable compartment inside the refrigerator, where they stay afresh for up to a week.

Preparation and serving methods

Wash bitter gourds thoroughly in cold running water before cooking. Fresh pods as well as young leaves can be used for cooking. Bitterness can be reduced by marinating in salted spice mixture and drying under sunlight. There are several local traditional methods to reduce bitterness like boiling in salt water for 5-10 minutes and then discarding the water or marinating in yogurt for about 30 minutes.

Although its pith and seeds are discarded due to their higher alkaloid content, they can also be enjoyed in some Asian regions without any reservations.

Here are some serving tips:

goya chanpuru prepared with bitter melon, tofu, egg and onion
Goya chanpuru. A okinawan dish prepared with bitter melon, tofu, egg and onion.
Photo courtesy: jetalone
  • In India, where it popularly known as karela, is used in a variety of recipes either stir-fried or stuffed with garam-masala, tomato, onions, green chilies, garlic and curry leaves.

  • Goya chanpuru, Okinawan stir-fry with bitter melon, onion, tofu, pork, and eggs, is a special dish of health-conscious island inhabitants.

  • Known as ampalaya in the Philippines, it has been widely used in special dishes like Pinakbet Ilocano, prepared with shrimp paste and mixed with vegetables like eggplant (aubergine) and okra.

  • Dried, and powdered whole bitter gourd has been used in the preparation of iced or milk tea in some East Asian regions.

  • Bitter gourd is also been used in the pickling preparations.

Safety profile

Bitter gourd may contain alkaloid substances like quinine and morodicine, resins and saponic glycosides, which may be cause intolerance in some people. Their bitterness and toxicity may be reduced somewhat by parboiling or soaking in salt water for upto 10 minutes. Toxicity symptoms may include excessive salivation, facial redness, dimness of vision, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscular weakness. (Medical disclaimer).

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Further resources:

1. The National Bitter Melon Council.

2. USDA National Nutrient Database.

Stanford School of Medicine Cancer information Page- Nutrition to Reduce Cancer Risk.

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