March 18, 2019
By: Sangeeta Shrivastava PhD, RDN
I grew up in India and my grandfather, an Ayurveda expert, always said that karela (bitter melon) is good for health. My family ate it often. In the United States, this unique fruit is available at Indian or international grocery stores and even popular grocery stores.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family. It is an herbaceous vine originally cultivated in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Bitter melon is widely known as an oblong, warty, bitter fruit. Similar to squash, melons and cucumbers, it is also known by various other names, like karela in India, balsam pear or bitter gourd in the United States, fu kwa in China, nigai uri in Japan and ampalaya in the Philippines. Bitter melon is normally eaten as vegetable and is preferred when immature and green (1).
My husband and I both enjoy bitter melon. While raw bitter melon's distinct bitter taste is usually not preferred, cooking it with herbs and spices helps to balance out the bitterness. I cook it with onions, ginger, garlic and lots of spices. Cooking with tomatoes has shown better acceptability (2). Ayurvedic practitioners teach that bitter taste is good for Kapha and Pitta balance and has detoxifying properties.
The Nutritive Value of Bitter Melon
According to the National Institute of Nutrition in India, bitter melon is low in calories, carbohydrate, and sodium and is a good source of vitamin C. Bitter melon contains 3.7 grams of fiber, 326 mg of potassium, 122 mcg of beta carotene, 23 mg of omega 3 fats, 47 mg of vitamin C and 50 mg of polyphenols per 100 g serving (3).
Health Benefits of Bitter Melon
Bitter melon has been used for thousands of years in Africa, India and China as a natural medicine and detoxifier. Numerous scientific studies have evaluated the medicinal properties of this tropical fruit. Animal studies have suggested that bitter melon reduces adiposity by improving lipid metabolism (4, 5). One of the most well-known uses for bitter melon is for the management of diabetes. Bitter melon contains momordica charantin, insulin-like peptides and alkaloids, which exert hypoglycemic effects through different metabolic pathways like increased insulin secretion and lowered insulin resistance (6).
Several studies point out that because bitter melon exerts hypoglycemic affects care should be taken if taken as a juice or supplement, especially if taking diabetes medications. Healthcare providers should always be consulted before starting this in a supplement form.
Bitter melon is a distinct fruit which is used as a vegetable in Asian, Indian, and African cuisine. Bitter melon may also be beneficial for diabetes management and other chronic diseases according to various studies. Research and clinical experience suggest that bitter melon may be a good fit with the concept of food as medicine. Explore this unique fruit further and cook it with your choice of herbs and spices.
Have you tried bitter melon? What do you think about this unique tropical fruit?
- Meyers C. Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook. 2nd ed. Sacramento, CA: University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources; 1998: 22-24.
- Snee LS, Nerurkar VR, Dooley DA, Efird JT, Shovic AC, Nerurkar PV. “Strategies to improve palatability and increase consumption intentions for Momordica charantia (bitter melon): a vegetable commonly used for diabetes management.” Nutr J, 2011;10:78. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-10-78.
- Longva T, Ananthan R, Bhaskarachary K, Venkaiah K. India Food Composition Tables. Telangana, India: National Institute of Nutrition; 2017.
- Xu L, Xu Y, Wang S, et al. Novel bitter melon extracts highly yielded from supercritical extraction reduce the adiposity through enhanced lipid metabolism in mice fed a high fat diet. J Nutri Intermed Metabol. 2016; 6: 26-32.
- Alam MA, Uddin R, Subhan N, et al. Beneficial Role of Bitter Melon Supplementation in Obesity and Related Complications in Metabolic Syndrome. J Lipids. 2015; 496169.
- Pahlavani N, Roudi F, Zakerian M, et. al. Possible molecular mechanisms of glucose-lowering activities of Momordica charantia (karela) in diabetes. J Cell Biochem. 2019. doi: 10.1002/jcb.28483.