New Miracle Drug: Watermelon

By Janet Ford, DietPower Senior Editor

Listed by the American Heart Association as one of the best foods for cardiovascular health.

Watermelon has the power to strip man of his morality. Mark Twain recalled that the first thing he ever stole was a watermelon, and it gave him cause to reflect on his crime. The melon wasn't ripe, and he thought he should pay restitution to the farmer he swiped it from.

"I carried that watermelon back, what was left of it," he said, "and made him give me a ripe one in its place."

The fruit of the Citrullus lanatus vine has had this power for thousands of years. Watermelon was recorded in ancient Egypt, and has been a staple of both food and water in Africa and Asia. (With a water content of 92 percent, it's not called watermelon for nothing.)

Watermelon has witnessed many changes and discoveries in the past 20 years, however. Thanks to scientific advances, it's being touted as so healthful it should be stored in your medicine chest. It won't fit, of course, but even that is changing: Nowadays, you can find watermelons so small you'll be tempted to shoplift them.

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DietPower has declared watermelon one of "The 10 Best Foods." Its delectable flesh has no cholesterol and virtually no fat—a stellar accomplishment for a food served as a picnic dessert. Watermelon is an excellent source of potassium and vitamins A, C, and B6. It's also a good source of water, so you can chew your way to your daily H2O requirement. Watermelon is so good for weight loss that it's even inspired the Watermelon Diet.

Move Over, Tomatoes!

But recent research shows another wonderful characteristic: Watermelon contains more lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. Lycopene, besides being the red pigment that gives the flesh its color, is an antioxidant known to prevent cancer. Studies have shown that people who get lots of lycopene have a lower risk of prostate, uterine, and esophageal tumors.

Tomatoes have received the lion's share of attention when it comes to lycopene, even though there is less per serving (4 milligrams in a cup vs. 9 in the same amount of watermelon). Watermelon is also listed by the American Heart Association as one of the best foods for cardiovascular health.

"Watermelon is practically a multivitamin unto itself," says Samantha Winters, a spokeswoman for the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

But Wait, There's More!

This just in: A researcher at Texas A&M University reports that watermelon may have a Viagra-like effect on men.

Watermelon contains citrulline, an amino acid that dilates blood vessels in the same way as drugs for treating erectile dysfunction. Scientists have known about the citrulline for years, but until recently they thought most of it was in the rind. Now they've discovered that the flesh contains more than previously thought.

This doesn't mean that eating watermelon will produce an erection, since the amount of citrulline is still relatively low. But it probably can't hurt. And if you eat the rind, too.... (Watermelon pickles, anyone?)

For deeper insight into this potential benefit, click here.

Spitters' Foe

Watermelons are still on the kitchen counter instead of the medicine chest because they're bulky, but that's changed over the years. Although the Japanese recently created a cube-shaped watermelon (click here to see it), in America the trend is toward smaller and smaller. In part, this stems (no pun intended) from the craze to make watermelons seedless. Melons without seeds are smaller and rounder than their seedy cousins.

The technology for growing seedless melons has been around for half a century, but popular for only the last 15 years or so, says Warren Roberts, a watermelon expert and an associate professor of horticulture at Oklahoma State University. Today, one-third to one-half of all watermelons sold in this country are seedless, and in California the rate is seven in eight.

Making the seedless variety involves cross-pollination, whose side effects include smaller seeds in the seeded types. And that's why Jim Dietz, of Chicago, can rest assured that his singular accomplishment may last longer than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game batting streak. Dietz, you see, holds the world record for watermelon-seed spitting: 68 feet, 11 inches, which he set in New Orleans in 1978. OK, he admits that the feat was wind-aided, but no one has come close since. Today, a good spit travels only 28 to 38 feet.

Download DietPower and lose pounds"I think spitting was just something natural that I was bestowed with," he says. It runs in the family: He broke the record held by his late father, Bob, and has won the spitting contest eight times. He attributes his expectoratorial prowess to no special technique. "I put the seed towards the tip of my tongue," he explains, "and just try and shoot it with as much air as I can muster."

Dietz, whose family business distributes watermelons, says the record is likely to stay intact partly because of the seedless melons. "They've cross-bred them so many times," he says, "the seeds just don't have the mass." Because a smaller object has a higher surface-to-mass ratio than a larger, it's far more susceptible to that enemy of all seed-spitters: wind resistance.

Is That Melon Ripe?

The melon miniaturist movement continues. In California, one of the leading producers of watermelons (Florida is the biggest), stores are stocked with melons the size of cantaloupes. "As family size decreases, consumers want something smaller," says Dana Abercrombie, director of the California-Arizona Watermelon Association.

Today's "personal" watermelon weighs only two or three pounds. "It's just a one-meal melon," Abercrombie says "—something you can cut in half and say, 'Here, honey, you eat this.'"

Large or small, how do you tell when a watermelon is ripe?

Most experts advise starting with the color of the rind. It should be a dull green, depending on the variety—but more importantly, the side that has lain on the ground during ripening should be creamy yellow. If it's white or green, the melon isn't ripe.

Another major clue is the small ring where the stem attaches to the fruit. The ring should be at least partially brown. If it's totally green, put the melon back.

What about the stem itself? Contrary to popular opinion, a brown stem does not prove ripeness. "It means only that the melon was picked several days or weeks ago and is not fresh," says Dale Mootz, whose family has raised watermelons for the local market in Lawrence County, Ohio, for 30 years. "We are often asked why our melons taste so good. It is because they are fresh—as indicated by their green stems."

A melon's density should also give it away. "You should pick it up and say, 'Oh, that's heavier than I thought it should be,'" says Abercrombie. Heaviness means the melon has absorbed a goodly amount of water.

Kicking the Tires

There is no consensus about the "thump" test. Abercrombie recommends slapping with the palm of your hand, not your knuckle. "You should hear a hollow, reverberating sound, like in a basketball." If the melon pings, it's not ripe, she says.

Download DietPower and lose poundsMany people swear by the acoustic method, but others say it's like kicking a car's tires. "It makes you feel good when you do it, but you don't know what it will accomplish," says Roberts, the Oklahoma State expert. Only an experienced ear can tell the difference, he says.

"A lot of people talk about that, but they can't really tell you what they're listening for," says Winters of the national board. If you're not sure, you can always ask the grocer to cut it for you.

Once you have the melon home, it will keep at room temperature for two to three weeks. After you've cut into it, however, it needs to go in the fridge. Or you can take care of it the way Roberts does. "I like to cut it open, eat the heart out, and then go on to another melon."

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