Glenn Ellis

*Even though Watermelon is the leading U.S. melon crop in terms of acreage, production, and per capita consumption. Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that African Americans are underrepresented as watermelon eaters. Blacks represent about 13 percent of the United States population yet only account for 11 percent of the watermelon consumption. It is possible that many African Americans are reluctant to eat watermelons because they do not want to “validate” the stereotype of the shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro.

Native to Africa, it was a valuable and portable source of water for desert situations and when natural water supplies were contaminated. Watermelons were cultivated in Egypt and India as far back as 2500 B.C. as evidenced in ancient hieroglyphics.

Watermelons were brought to China around the 10th century and then to the Western Hemisphere shortly after the discovery of the New World. In Russia, where much of the commercial supply of watermelons is grown, there is a popular wine made from this fruit. In addition to Russia, the leading commercial growers of watermelon include China, Turkey, Iran and the United States.

Today, there are several hundred different cultivars, mostly due to the different needs of regional markets: genetic manipulation has allowed for the cultivation of giant watermelons (the largest weighed in at approximately 262 pounds), as well as seedless varieties (derived from cross-pollinating a tetraploid plant with a diploid variety, resulting in a triploid plant with much fewer seeds than normal watermelons). In fact, there are more than 1200 varieties of watermelon ranging in size from less than a pound, to more than two hundred pounds, with flesh that is red, orange, yellow or white.

Watermelons are grown in 44 of the continental United States. If you purchase watermelons in a western state, chances are they were grown in California or Arizona. If you purchase them in a mid-western or eastern state, they are more likely to have been grown in Florida, Georgia, or Texas. If you really crave watermelon for New Year’s Day, you can probably get one, since they

are imported from Mexico. Domestic melons, however, come into season in May and are around until the end of October. The season’s peak is from May through August.

Watermelon is not only a refreshing fruit to beat the heat on a hot summer day but it has a few health advantages. Watermelon is also very effective in reducing your body temperature and blood pressure. Many people in the tropical regions eat the fruit daily in the afternoon during summers to protect themselves from heat stroke. This fruit may also help in reducing inflammation that contributes to conditions like asthma, atherosclerosis, diabetes, colon cancer, and arthritis. Watermelon is full of water, carbohydrates and fiber along with essential vitamins and minerals that provides nutrition to the body for better metabolism.

Watermelon has the highest concentration of lycopene, which is a important antioxidant helpful in fighting heart diseases and cancer. It also contains high amount of potassium, which is essential for muscle nerve function and helps lower blood pressure. The fruit contains vitamin A which helps maintain eye health and is a good antioxidant, B6 provides brain function and vitamin C which helps build immunity and prevent cell damage. They also contain important amino acids citrulline and arginine, which can help maintain arteries, blood flow and overall heart health. The amino acids also improve body’s sensitivity towards insulin.

The nutrition of the watermelon doesn’t end with the flesh of the fruit. Even though many of spit them out, the seeds aren’t necessarily annoying: in some nations of Asia, especially China, roasted seeds are very common and eaten as a snack! Other regions of Africa press them to produce watermelon seed oil, which is common in soups such as egusi. In fact, even the rind is sometimes pickled, or even stir-fried, which means the whole watermelon fruit is edible.

Watermelon seeds are also available in the markets in dried form and have high nutrition in it. The seeds are rich in magnesium and contains high amount of protein and fat. Watermelon seeds are excellent sources of protein (both essential and non-essential amino acids) and oil. Watermelon seed is about 35% protein, 50% oil, and 5% dietary fiber. Watermelon seed is also rich in micro- and macro-nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorous, zinc etc. Scientists know that when watermelon is consumed, a chemical called citrulline is converted to the amino acid known as arginine through certain enzymes. Arginine is an amino acid that works wonders on the heart and circulation system and maintains a good immune system.

The benefits of watermelon don’t end there. Arginine also helps the urea cycle by removing ammonia and other toxic compounds from our bodies. Citrulline, the precursor to arginine, is found in higher concentrations in the rind of watermelons than the flesh.

The citrulline-arginine relationship helps heart health, the immune system and may prove to be very helpful for those who suffer from obesity and type 2 diabetes. Arginine boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it.

While there are many psychological and physiological problems that can cause impotence, extra nitric oxide could help those who need increased blood flow, which would also help treat angina, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.

Watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra, but it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side effects.

As an added bonus, studies have also shown that deep red varieties of watermelon have displaced the tomato as the lycopene king. Almost 92 percent of watermelon is water, but the remaining 8 percent is loaded with lycopene, an anti-oxidant that protects the human heart, prostate and skin health.

Ever wonder how they grow seedless watermelons?

A seedless watermelon is a “hybrid”, which is created by crossing male pollen for a watermelon, containing 22 chromosomes per cell, with a female watermelon flower with 44 chromosomes per cell. When this seeded fruit matures, the small, white seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. This is similar to the mule, produced by crossing a horse with a donkey. This process does not involve genetic modification. Genetically modified foods (or GM foods) are foods derived from genetically modified organisms.

So there you have it. Seedless watermelons are just regular watermelons, albeit a relatively younger relative of the traditional seeded watermelon. Despite being the new kid on the block, the seedless watermelon actually outsells its seeded peers by a significant margin. According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelon sold in grocery stores has seeds.  Ten Years ago, 46 percent of those sold had seeds.

There’s an art to choosing the best watermelon that makes all the difference in the world. The National Watermelon Promotion Board offers these three easy tips for choosing a great watermelon:

* Choose a firm, symmetrical fruit that is free of bruises, cuts and dents.

* Before you buy, pick up your melon. The heavier it feels, the better — a good watermelon is 92% water, which makes up most of its weight.

* On the underside of the watermelon there should be a creamy yellow spot from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun.

One final bit of advice for the watermelons you will buy this summer. They store much better uncut if you leave them at room temperature. Lycopene levels can be maintained even as it sits on your kitchen floor. But once you cut it, refrigerate. And enjoy!

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor? and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com