Cantaloupe is the fruit of a creeping plant which belongs to the large Cucurbitaceae family. It consists of a very thick skin, which, according to the varieties, is smooth or not, and presents divisions. It contains a juicy flesh comprising many seeds concentrated in a central cavity. The flavor of a melon always depends on its maturity.
History of cantaloupe
The winter cantaloupes once wore the name “pompoms”, a word probably derived from pepones, under which the Romans designated them at the beginning of our era.
The Asian fruit called “hairy melon” is closer, in fact, to squash. It belongs to another botanical species (Benincasa hispida). It is the same for the “bitter melon” (Momordica charantia), cultivated throughout Asia and primed as a vegetable.
It has long been thought the melon came from Central Asia or Iran. Genetic studies, cross-testing, and the distribution of the species have allowed researchers to estimate it would come from sub-Saharan Africa instead. Wild varieties with non edible fruits still exist in these areas. From there, it would have had a very large distribution from the Middle East to China, through India and Afghanistan. Archaeological vestiges indicate it was cultivated in Iran and China 5 000 years ago and in Egypt 4 000 years ago.
The Greeks and the Romans preferred watermelon (melon of water) to melon, which was at that time rather tasteless. In fact, it was considered a vegetable. It was eaten cooked or in salad, vinegar, peppered and embellished with other spices. In Rome its price was still very high because of its rarity. The emperor Diocletian had to even issue an edict to set the price.
Although the Moors have encouraged its production in Spain from the 8th century, it will not raise any real interest until the fifteenth or sixteenth century. At that time; varieties were made with sweeter and larger fruit. In the Renaissance, Italian monks will cross a variety producing a tasty fruit to which they will give the name of the papal residence where they had produced it (Cantalupo).
Christopher Columbus will introduce the cantaloupe on the island of Hispaniola (in the Great Antilles) in 1494 on his second trip to America. It will probably be the first fruit to be grown there. It is found in Central America in 1516, in Virginia in 1609 and in New York in 1629.
Cantaloupe is now grown all over the world, in the ground or in the greenhouse, depending on the region. The selection of early varieties, irrigation and fertilization allow it to be cultivated under climates normally not conducive to its good growth. But as the fruit gained in distribution, it has lost in quality. From their perspective, nothing beats the melon grown in a little or no irrigated land, and exposed to the warm southern sun.
Apart from fruit, seeds are consumed, roasted in India, dried and reduced into powder in Africa. In addition, on this continent as well as in China, medicinal properties are given to the leaves, stems and roots of the plant.
Cantaloupe health profile
Melons, such as cantaloupe and honey melon, are refreshing fruits. They decorate breakfasts as well as desserts and appetizers. They provide a good amount of vitamin A and C.
The benefits of cantaloupe
Several prospective and epidemiological studies have shown high consumption of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other chronic diseases. The presence of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables could play a role in these protective effects.
Cancer. The consumption of foods containing carotenoids, such as melon, would be linked to a lower risk of suffering from certain cancers. In addition, researchers identified in a particular type of melon (Oriental melon) odorous compounds (MTAE, AMTE, AMTP, benzyl acetate, and eugenol). These compounds could help to prevent cancer through their antimutagenic, antioxidant and cellular differentiation.
What does the melon contain?
Cantaloupes contain different antioxidants, mostly carotenoids and some phenolic compounds. Carotenoids are pigments giving a reddish-orange color to the food. Thus, orange-pulp melons contain more carotenoids than paler-fleshed melons. Beta-carotene, an important precursor of vitamin A in the organism, accounts for 85% of the total carotenoids of cantaloup. According to the scientific research, this is 60 times more than honey melon. Melons also contain other carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin, but in rather negligible amounts.
Superoxide dismutase is an enzyme recognized for its antioxidant properties. It is present in some melon extracts, mainly in the cantaloup. However, it shows little of its antioxidant properties when it comes from food. Indeed, it is usually inactivated and digested throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Thus far, studies have not been able to conclude the consumption of cantaloupe provides the health benefits attributable to superoxide dismutase. Researchers are studying some compounds that have the ability to protect it from the digestive degradation process to allow its absorption.
The cantaloupe too ripe: dangerous?
When they become too ripe, the fruits produce and accumulate ethanol (alcohol) which alters their taste. The ethanol of a fruit is not inherently hazardous, but it could bring a risk to people who are allergic to this substance. The few cases of anaphylactic reactions to ethanol reported in the scientific literature are related to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, a reported case refers to the consumption of an overripe melon causing an anaphylactic reaction, caused by ethanol, in an individual who is not allergic to melon. Of course, this particular situation remains rare, but it still requires a warning about the consumption of too ripe fruit in people who are allergic to ethanol.
Cantaloupes can be contaminated with bacteria, for example salmonella, at different stages between picking and eating. In recent years, a significant number of infections associated with the consumption of cantaloup have been reported in the United States. Even if some factors of contamination cannot be prevented by the consumer, they can still make sure to minimize their risk of infection by taking a few precautions. The introduction of bacteria inside the fruit can occur during cutting, if the outside of the melon is previously contaminated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States agency responsible for food control, thought it best to issue the following recommendations:
- Avoid melons with bruises.
- Wash your hands with soap before handling the melon.
- Rub the melon with a brush under the cold tap water before consumption.
- The intact fruit can be stored at room temperature if not yet ripe. The chopped melon should be refrigerated within 2 hours of preparation.
Oral allergy syndrome
Melons are part of the foods that can be implicated in the oral allergy syndrome. This syndrome is an allergic reaction to certain proteins of a range of fruits, vegetables and nuts. It affects some people with allergies to environmental pollen and is almost always preceded by hay fever. Thus, when some people allergic to ragweed eat raw honey melon or those allergic to pollen from grass and artemisia pollen eat raw melon (cooking usually degrades the allergen proteins), an immunological reaction may occur. These people feel itching and burning sensations to the mouth, lips and throat. Symptoms may appear and then disappear, usually a few minutes after consuming or touching the food. In the absence of other symptoms, this reaction is not serious and the consumption of melon does not have to be avoided systematically. However, it is recommended to consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions to plant foods. The latter will be able to assess whether special precautions should be taken.
Storage and conservation
Choosing a melon is still a matter of luck. Although the fruits of the new varieties are more uniform, some are sweeter than others, and the appearance of the fruit is not always a good clue.
According to experts, the main criterion is weight. The more a melon is heavy, proportionately to its size, the better it will be. It should be firm or slightly supple depending on whether you prefer it more or less ripe. The presence of a crack at the base of the stalk (where the tail should be) is a sign of optimum maturity. It must exhale, around the peduncle, a pleasant fragrance without being too pronounced (if an ether smell comes out, it is too ripe).
If the melon is not ripe enough, leave it for 2 or 3 days at room temperature.
Refrigerator. If it is well ripe, it will keep at most 2 or 3 days in the crisper. Preferably put it in a plastic bag to prevent it from communicating its odor to other foods.
Freezer. Cut the meat in dice or pellets and freeze in an airtight bag.
Ecology and environment
In Nigeria, farmers are used to planting melon in mixed culture with peas, corn and sweet potatoes. All these plants are planted at the same time. The long creeping stalks of the melon completely cover the ground and prevent weeds from growing. As the plant grows rapidly and ripens its fruits in 3 months, it releases the soil in time for the sweet potato, which grows much slower, to grow without suffering from weed competition. As for peas, which rises on maize plants, it brings nitrogen to other crops.
This system allows the farmer to offer his family a variety of food. It also provides some assurance against erratic climate conditions. If, for a variety of reasons, one of these four plants gives less, there are still three more. Finally, in mixed cultures, plants are much less attacked by insects and diseases, and therefore require fewer pesticides.