By Denis Faye
There's nothing bad about melons. They're yummy, they're super good for you, and they're one of the most social foods around. No self-respecting summer picnic would be complete without a big ol' watermelon. In fact, Americans purchase 3 billion pounds of the big green yum-balls annually. Everything else on the checkered tablecloth might be a nutritional nightmare, but nestled between the ambrosia and the macaroni salad you'll always find those big slices of sweet pink vitamin C-packed goodness, secretly supplying hungry partygoers with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids.
In truth, I probably don't need to explain why you should be eating everyone's favorite summer fruit, 'cause you're gonna eat it either way, but we're all food nerds here, right? So let's take moment and learn a little more about melons.
You can buy melons in the grocery store year-round, but they're in season in America in the summer, so save your consumption for that season, and make sure you buy local. There are a couple of reasons to do this. First, once a piece of fruit is picked, it starts to lose nutrients, so not only do melons shipped from Central America tend to be mealier in texture, they're also less nutritious. Second, imported melons are more expensive.
You can store a melon at room temperature for a few days. Refrigerating it will help the nutrients last longer, but you lose flavor, particularly with cantaloupes. Once you've cut it open, all bets are off. Seal that melon and store it in the fridge. It should last about a week.
And even though you're probably not going to eat the rind, give your melon a good washing before cutting it up, so you can avoid any dirt, residues, or pesticides (if it's not organic) that might get into the flesh when you cut it.
While the watermelon is arguably the rock star of the melon world, having recently been rated the second healthiest fruit around by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (behind guava), it's just one of dozens of melon varieties. Let's discuss a few.
Actually, the watermelon is the only melon that's not a member of the Cucumis genus. It's a member of the genus Citrullus—which totally matters, right? Anyway, why did the CSPI go nuts for watermelons? They're loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C, A, B6, and B1, as well as potassium and magnesium. More importantly, they're loaded with carotenoids, pigments existing in plants that give them their vibrant colors. Carotenoids also have beneficial effects on those who eat them, including protecting cell walls from free radicals, improving your immune system, and helping to maintain reproductive health.
One of the most prominent carotenoids in watermelon is the cardiovascular-system-enhancing lycopene, which is usually associated with tomatoes, even though watermelon contains a much higher concentration by volume.
Haters sometimes criticize the watermelon for its lack of fiber. While this is true, it's fairly irrelevant. This fruit is incredibly water- and nutrient-dense, meaning you get a lot of vitamins and minerals for very few calories. One cup, which works out to about a pound of fruit, is only 49 calories.
Furthermore, I defy you to show me anyone who's ever gotten fat from eating watermelon.
Picking a good watermelon is easy. As is the case with all melons, once it's been plucked from the vine, it stops ripening, so don't buy it hoping it'll improve. According to The World's Healthiest Foods by George Mateljan, there are two tricks to identifying a ripe watermelon. First, the "ground spot," where it rested in the dirt, should be yellow. If it's green or white, it's probably not ready. Seedless watermelons sometimes don't have ground spots, so this doesn't apply to them. Second, give it a thump. If it responds with a dull thud, that's good. It if sounds hollow, put it back.
On final note, if you're concerned about the genetic modification factor when it comes to seedless watermelon varieties, don't be. They're hybrids, meaning they're a cross between two types of melon. No genes are manipulated in the making of this summer treat.
My grandmother used to say, "Cantaloupe—'cause we're already married!"
Bwahahahahaha! [Wipes tear from eye.]
Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's talk about the fruit the CSPI ranked as the eighth healthiest fruit. The cantaloupe, as we know it, is actually a muskmelon. Real cantaloupes are grown in France and rarely make it to the states. Whatever you want to call them, they're packed with vitamins C, A, B3, B6, and B9, as well as potassium. Unlike watermelons, they have a little fiber, a little over 1 gram for a 56-calorie, one-cup serving.
They're also a good source of carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, which you'll also find in carrots. Are you seeing the pattern here? Remember how I said carotenoids are pigments? Cantaloupes and carrots are both orange. Watermelons and tomatoes, with their lycopene, are both red.
Cantaloupes stop ripening when picked, but unlike watermelons, the tap test should sound hollow. They should have a subtle, fruity smell. If a cantaloupe smells too strong, it's probably overripe. Also, the side opposite the stem should be slightly soft. Other than that, there should be no bruises or odd spots.
The only real downside to cantaloupe—and it's a weird one—is that people with latex allergies sometimes react poorly to them, so look out for that. Who knew?
Although they're still yummy, honeydew melons fare poorly from a nutritional standpoint when compared to their pink and orange brethren. That one cup of cubes has 61 calories and 1 gram of fiber, but the vitamin C is only about half that of cantaloupe, and there are also much lower amounts of other micronutrients, although there's still a pretty good amount of potassium.
The carotenoid that gives honeydew its green hue is zeaxanthin, which promotes eye health. You'll find even more impressive amounts of zeaxanthin in almost all leafy greens.
You determine whether a honeydew's ripe the same way you find a good cantaloupe. Hollow tap, fruity smell, and no soft spots.
Although it's less well known, I thought I'd mention the casaba, because of the special role it plays in the melon world. While nowhere near as nutritionally dense as the melons we've discussed previously, the casaba still features a nice little hit of vitamins C and B6, plus some potassium. Casabas also tend to have slightly more protein and fiber and less sugar than other melons, which gives them less of a glycemic load. In other words, they might be considered a "low-carb" fruit.
Though not as flavorful as some other melons, casabas have a long shelf life, which is convenient. The ripeness smell test doesn't really apply here, as they have no aroma, so look for color instead. The outer skin on a ripe casaba will be bright yellow.
Which melon is right for you?
The answer? Any of them. Hoewever, if after reading all this, you're stuck as to which melon to pick for your next BBQ, I have an idea: Buy one of each! Chop them up, mix them up, and you have a colorful, nutrient-rich fruit salad that'll kick that picnic into overdrive. With any luck, Cousin Millie and Grandma Bertie will finally get the message that you don't need mayo and refined sugar to make food delicious.
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