Bitter gourd, also called bitter melon or balsam pear, is produced by an evergreen tropical plant, Mormodica charantia. Named for its strong bitter flavor, it is considered the most bitter of all edible vegetables. The gourd resembles a light green cucumber, with an elongated shape covered with a warty rind. In addition to its use as food in salads and cooked dishes, bitter gourd has medicinal properties and may benefit your health in several ways.
Bitter gourd is a low-calorie vegetable, with only 24 calories in a 1-cup serving of cooked, diced gourd. Its nutrients are mainly carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein and a trace of fat. Each 1-cup serving of bitter gourd also contains moderate amounts of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus and a tiny amount of iron. It is exceptionally rich in potassium, with almost 400 milligrams per serving. Bitter gourd also contains several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C, A and E, and several of the B vitamins; it is especially rich in folate, with 63 micrograms per serving. Bitter gourd also contains several natural plant compounds, or phytochemicals, that may affect your body positively and lower your risk of disease.
Cancer and HIV
Bitter melon contains a number of chemicals with medicinal properties. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center says that some of these compounds may suppress the growth of cancer cells and slow the growth of viruses. In a laboratory study published in "Anticancer Research," one of these compounds from bitter gourd, a protein called MAP-30, slowed growth of cultured breast cancer cells and improved survival for laboratory animals with breast cancer. Another study published in "Current Molecular Medicine" found that the same protein reduced growth of the HIV virus responsible for AIDS and improved survival of HIV-infected cultured cells. The authors suggest that bitter melon-derived chemicals may be useful for HIV therapy, although more clinical research with human subjects is needed to confirm this.
Bitter melon might also reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to the Cancer Center. Several compounds in bitter melon can move glucose from your blood into your liver and muscles, where it is stored. This helps lower your blood sugar, reducing the demand for insulin, the hormone that lowers your blood glucose after a carbohydrate-containing meal. In a clinical study published in the "Journal of Ethnopharmacology," human subjects with Type 2 diabetes took either bitter melon or an anti-diabetes drug for four weeks. Subjects who consumed 2,000 milligrams of bitter melon daily showed a drop in their blood glucose that was about half of the decrease recorded by those who took the diabetes drug. These are promising results, although larger clinical studies are still needed.
How to Use
Bitter melon may be available at some specialty food stores, and can be consumed raw or boiled and diced or mashed. Dried bitter gourd and bitter gourd extract are also available at health food stores. Although generally considered safe, do not consume bitter gourd or its extract if you are pregnant, since it might induce bleeding or contractions. Bitter gourd may also interact with some prescription medications, especially diabetes drugs. Do not consume bitter gourd in large quantities, since the seeds contain toxic compounds. Do not self-treat with bitter gourd. Discuss its use with your doctor to decide if it might be appropriate for you.
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Bitter Melon
- The World Vegetable Center Bitter Gourd Project: Bitter Gourd Health Benefits
- Anticancer Research: Inhibition of MDA-MB-231 Human Breast Tumor Xenografts and HER2 Expression by Anti-Tumor Agents GAP31 and MAP30
- National Agricultural Library: Balsam Pear (Bitter Gourd)
- Journal of Ethnopharmacology: Hypoglycemic Effect of Bitter Melon Compared with Metformin in Newly Diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes Patients
- Current Molecular Medicine: Ribosome Inactivating Proteins (RIPs) from Momordica Charantia for Anti Viral Therapy
- The National Bitter Melon Council: Better Living Through Bitter Melon
Joanne Marie began writing professionally in 1981. Her work has appeared in health, medical and scientific publications such as Endocrinology and Journal of Cell Biology. She has also published in hobbyist offerings such as The Hobstarand The Bagpiper. Marie is a certified master gardener and has a Ph.D. in anatomy from Temple University School of Medicine.