Watermelon has a lot going for it

Canadians should be eating more watermelon because it is one of the healthiest foods at the grocery store. | Getty Images

Watermelon is the perfect summer food.

It’s tasty, refreshing and a fruit that 99 percent of kids will eat.

But Canadians should maybe be eating more watermelon because it is one of the healthiest foods at the grocery store.

The fruit is loaded with phytochemicals that protect the health of the human body, says the United States Department of Agriculture in a release promoting its research.

“This means that every time you eat watermelon, you’ll be improving the health of your cells, organs and nervous system,” the USDA said.

For years, USDA scientists have been studying the molecules that exist in fruit and vegetables known as phytochemicals. Those natural chemicals include things like lycopene, a plant nutrient that provides the red pigment to fruits like tomato, pink grapefruit and watermelon.

Research from Harvard University has shown that lycopene is a powerful anti-oxidant that can control free-radicals — molecules that can damage DNA and cause cancer.

USDA scientists have now identified more than 1,500 of these beneficial molecules in fruit and have concluded that watermelon is a fantastic source of phytochemicals like lycopene.

“The fruit (watermelon) also has more lycopene than a raw tomato, which is linked to healthy eyes, overall heart health and protection against certain cancer,” the USDA said in its late May release.

South African researchers have reached a similar conclusion.

In a study published in the International Journal of Food Properties in 2019, scientists said watermelon is the best source of lycopene.

The researchers pointed to work done in India, which found that “watermelon as the fruit containing the highest bioavailable lycopene… about 60 percent more than that found in tomato, which makes it the lycopene leader among fresh produce.”

The South African scientists also said that consuming watermelon can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.

While much is known about lycopene, USDA researchers hope to identify the hundreds of other phytochemicals that are found in watermelon and other fruits.

If they can figure that out and what the chemicals do in the human body, plant scientists can use that information to breed agricultural crops.

“The research to identify the metabolic pathways and genome sequence of genes involved in the production of beneficial phytochemicals could be highly useful for… breeders aiming to improve nutrient content in fruits and vegetables,” said Amnon Levi, a USDA scientist in Charleston, North Carolina.

Until that happens, there is a simple way to consume more lycopene and other anti-oxidants — eat more watermelon.

What Are Phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are natural compounds found in plants.

In many cases, they give vegetables and fruit their vibrant colours. Some types of phytochemicals are:

  • carotenoids (beta caro-tene, lycopene and lutein)
  • flavonoids
  • isoflavones

Why do we need anti-oxidants?

Some phytochemicals are antioxidants, which protect the body’s cells and tissues from free radicals, which can damage cells. Antioxidants are thought to help protect cells by removing free radicals before they cause damage.

Phytochemicals may help reduce the risk of cancer, but there’s still many unknowns about the activity of phyto-chemicals in the human body.

Source: Canadian Cancer Society

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