It comes in classic green, but bitter melon is no wallflower. Its strong flavor — and long list of health benefits — are attention-grabbers. “Bitter melon isn’t just for culinary adventurers,” says registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD. “It’s a great option for those looking to fight disease through healthful food choices.”
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Czerwony explains what you should know about this fruit, including four bitter melon health benefits.
What is bitter melon?
While bitter melon is a close relative of vegetables like zucchini and cucumber, it’s classified as a fruit. It also goes by many aliases, including balsam pear, balsam apple, bitter gourd and, for the scientifically minded, Momordica charantia.
Bitter melon is commonly grown in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. There are two main types:
- Chinese bitter melon looks like a shriveled cucumber.
- Indian bitter melon is dark green and stouter, with pointy ends and spiked skin.
Known for its strong bitter taste, bitter melon is also a nutritional powerhouse that offers a wide range of health benefits. You can eat it raw, but people often cook it to take the edge off its intense bitterness.
What are the benefits of bitter melon?
Not only is bitter melon a great low-calorie, high-fiber addition to your diet, it’s also packed with nutrients and antioxidants. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), bitter melon is a good source of:
“Bitter melon is chock full of vitamin C, which is not only a great immunity booster, but it’s also great for your skin and bones,” notes Czerwony. “And vitamin A also supports your immune system, vision and reproductive health.”
Minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc are essential for good health. They help keep your teeth, bones and blood cells healthy. They also support the functioning of your brain, muscles, nerves and immune system.
Czerwony explains four other benefits of bitter melon:
1. Could help prevent cancer
Bitter melon is full of beta-carotene, a pigment that makes vegetables red, orange and yellow. Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, and research has linked both beta-carotene and vitamin A with the prevention of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Beta carotene is an antioxidant, meaning it protects against cancer and other chronic diseases by preventing cellular damage,” explains Czerwony.
What’s more, scientists have used bitter melon extract to kill cancer cells in research to identify potential new cancer-fighting drugs. In one study, high concentrations of bitter melon extract effectively treated stomach, colon, lung and nasopharynx cancer cells in test tubes. In another study, bitter melon extract suppressed triple-negative breast cancer cells in non-human models. “While these results are promising, more research needs to be done to determine the real-world implications,” clarifies Czerwony.
2. May help manage blood sugar
Bitter melon is among several high-fiber, low-sugar fruits that can help lower your blood sugar (glucose) levels naturally. Unlike other types of carbs, your body can’t digest fiber, which means it doesn’t produce glucose as a result. Fiber also helps slow digestion, which slows the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream, preventing blood sugar spikes.
“Bitter melon also has its own version of insulin, a chemical called polypeptide-P,” Czerwony adds. “Research has shown that polypeptide-P may help regulate and lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.”
3. May lower cholesterol
Several lab studies have shined a light on bitter melon’s potential to lower unhealthy cholesterol levels. Researchers used large amounts of bitter melon extract to lower cholesterol levels in non-human models. “While researchers still need to see if the results hold up in human studies, it’s an exciting finding,” says Czerwony.
4. Could help prevent iron deficiency and anemia
Hemoglobin is a component of red blood cells that has the critical job of carrying oxygen throughout your body. But your body needs iron to make hemoglobin. And if you don’t get enough iron, you could develop iron-deficiency anemia, a condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells.
Getting enough iron is the main antidote for iron-deficiency anemia. Not only is bitter melon rich in iron, but it’s also high in folate (vitamin B9), a jack-of-all-trades vitamin that helps form red blood cells.
When shouldn’t you eat bitter melon?
How much you eat matters, notes Czerwony. “If you plan to eat large amounts for the health benefits, check in with your healthcare provider first. You could have an underlying health problem or be taking a medication that may make it unsafe. For example, bitter melon could interfere with insulin and diabetes medications. It’s also been linked to abnormalities in embryos in non-human studies, so avoid it if you’re pregnant, too.”
Discuss bitter melon supplements and extracts with your provider as well. Czerwony says they’re more potent than the fruit and should be used with caution. In particular, large amounts of bitter melon juice and extract have been linked to cases of:
Your best bet is to enjoy bitter melon as a food, not a supplement. “Bitter melon can be a delicious change of pace for the palate. You can sauté, steam and bake it or even eat it raw,” suggests Czerwony. “In moderation, it’s a great addition to a healthy diet.”