Even though July was National Watermelon Month, Wednesday, Aug. 3, is National Watermelon Day. Any fruit that has both a day and a month to be recognized must be of significant nutritional value and deserves discussion in this column.
The watermelon is cousin to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash. By weight, watermelon is the most-consumed melon in the U.S., followed by cantaloupe and honeydew. Today, China is the No. 1 producer of watermelons, with the U.S. currently ranking fourth worldwide.
The largest watermelon on record, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was grown by Bill Carson of Arrington, Tenn. In 1990, he grew a melon that weighed 262 pounds.
Watermelon is believed to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. Watermelons were often placed in the burial tombs of ancient Egyptian kings to nourish them in the afterlife. The southern food historian John Egerton believes that watermelon made its way to the United States with African slaves. Early explorers were said to have used watermelons as canteens. In 1776, the first cookbook published in this country contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.
How to pick a good watermelon
Although watermelons grow well year-round in tropical climates, they are at their best in the summer. Watermelons should be firm, symmetrical and free from bruises, cuts or dents. A watermelon is 92 percent water, so it should be heavy for its size. The rind should be smooth but not too shiny. The underside of the melon should have a yellow spot from where it was lying on the ground ripening. This pale or buttery yellow spot indicates ripeness and is what pickers look for during harvest time. The rind of watermelon looks hardy, but it is quite fragile, requiring watermelons to be picked by hand.
Just in case you are wondering, seedless watermelons are not genetically modified. They are hybrid watermelons that have been grown in the US for more than 50 years. According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelon sold in grocery stores has seeds, down significantly from 43 percent in 2003.
Preparing and serving watermelon
Like all other fruits and vegetables, watermelon should be washed before you cut into it. Wash the whole melon under running water. You should use clean cutting surfaces and knives and be sure to always wash your hands before preparing the watermelon for eating. Store watermelon in a cool place. If you cut it up, the sections should be covered and stored in the refrigerator. Fresh watermelon tastes great as is, but it also goes well in fruit salads in the shape of cubes or melon balls.
Health benefits of watermelon
Watermelon used to be thought of as just a sweet, tasty summertime treat containing water and some sugar and little in the way of actual nourishment. Recent research has shown that this is not the case. Watermelon is an excellent source of vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant, essential for vision and immunity. Watermelon is a good source of potassium, which helps regulate body fluids, and is necessary for controlling heart rate and regulating blood pressure. The vitamin C content of watermelon helps the immune system defend against infections and viruses. Vitamin B6 found in watermelon helps the body maintain normal nerve function and form red blood cells. Vitamin B6 also helps produce the antibodies necessary to fight disease.
The most surprising nutrient found in watermelon is lycopene. Lycopene, an antioxidant that protects against cancer, is the pigment that gives tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit their red hue. Watermelon contains more lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable — even higher than those tomatoes growing in your garden.
Two cups of watermelon provides just 80 calories, 30 percent of your vitamin A for the day and 25 percent of your vitamin C. With more than 200 varieties grown in the U.S. and Mexico, there has to be a variety out there for you. Pick up a watermelon for a healthy nutritious snack and enjoy a nice cold slice today.
On the next really hot day, try this Watermelon Sherbet Smoothie for a refreshing break.
Watermelon Sherbet Smoothie
Makes 4 servings.
3 cups fresh watermelon cubes
1 cup crushed ice
1 cup watermelon, raspberry or lime sherbet
4 teaspoons lime juice
Place four tall glasses in the freezer to frost about 30 minutes before you are ready to mix the smoothies.
Wash the whole melon and slice in quarters. The number of quarters you will need to cut up will depend on the size of your melon. Slice the flesh away from the rind and cube 3 cups. Combine the crushed ice, watermelon, sherbet and lime juice in blender and blend until smooth.
Pour the mixture into the frosted glasses and top each with a few miniature chocolate chips to imitate the seeds, if desired.
Each serving: 90 calories, 0.5 grams fat, 0.5 grams protein, 20 grams carbs, 20 mgs sodium
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her atGeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.