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What’s In Season: Watermelon

Nothing says summer like having a big juicy watermelon for dessert after an evening cook-out!  And, yes.  The watermelon has its name for a very good reason – it’s 92% water.  Refreshing on a hot day!

The watermelon was actually first harvested in Egypt 5,000 years ago and is now grown in 96 different countries.  It is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family and related to the cantaloupe, squash, and pumpkin.  Even though we most often think of the fruit as being deep red in color, there are also other varieties that have orange, yellow, or white flesh.

Watermelon is definitely an excellent addition to a healthy diet.  They are fat free and a serving (1 wedge equals about 1-2/3 cups) is only about 90 calories.  Nutritionally, watermelons are rich in vitamins A and C and high in the mineral potassium.  Vitamin A is important for optimal eye health and may help prevent night-blindness.  It has also been shown to boost immunity by enhancing infection-fighting actions of the white blood cells.  Vitamin C is also good for the immune system and also is a good antioxidant to protect the body from free radicals that can accelerate aging and conditions such as cataracts.  Potassium is an important mineral for water balance inside the body’s cells.  It is also essential for heart function, and can help lower blood pressure.

Watermelon is also very high in the antioxidant lycopene.  Watermelon is second only to tomatoes in lycopene content.  Lycopene has been studied extensively for its antioxidant and cancer-preventing properties, particularly prostate cancer.  A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has also found that those whose blood levels were low in lycopene were more susceptible for colon polyps, a precursor for colon cancer.  Another study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that men who consumed a lycopene-rich diet were half as likely to suffer a heart attack as those who had little or no lycopene in their diets.

More recent studies have found watermelon to be high in the amino acid citrulline.  The body uses citrulline to make another important amino acid called arginine.  This protein building-block plays a key role in wound healing and the removal of ammonia from the body.  It may also have a positive impact on cardiovascular health by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood pressure readings.

When choosing a watermelon at the store, choose one that is symmetrical with dried stems and yellowish undersides (if it doesn’t have this, it may have been picked prematurely).  The skin should neither be overly shiny or overly dull.  Pick it up – it should feel heavy for its size.

At home, you can store a whole, uncut watermelon at room temperature, or cut it into chunks and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days.  Remember to wash the skin before cutting into the flesh to prevent any pesticide residue from contaminating the fruit.

Watermelon is a very versatile fruit.  You can cut it up into slices, process in a blender or food processor until smooth, press through a fine sieve to discard seeds and pulp, and drink it as a juice or add to a smoothie.  Use a melon baller to make a pretty addition to a fruit salad.  It even works great in a salsa.  Puree watermelon, cantaloupe, and kiwi together and serve as a refreshing cold soup with a dab of plain yogurt on top.

For more recipes, see the Watermelon Promotion Board or the University of Illinois Extension websites.  Woman’s Day magazine also offers “7 Ways with Watermelon“.

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