It’s that time of year again for cucumbers—local, crisp, delicious cucumbers! They are another of those vegetables that we seem to have a bounty of during the summer—similar to zucchini, when they are ready the supply seems endless! Cucumbers don’t have significant nutritional value but their crunch, mild taste, and hydrating properties are very appealing. They go well with almost anything and always hit the spot on a hot summer day.
Botanically, cucumbers are a fruit and belong to the same family as watermelon, zucchini, pumpkin, and squash. They are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. They originated in southern Asia and were referred to in The Epic of Gilgamesh, so they have been around for thousands of years! After southern Asia they eventually came to Egypt, and by the first century A.D. their presence was reported in Italy, Greece, and France. They eventually came to this country via the early American colonists. In the ancient civilizations of Italy and France, cucumbers were used not only for eating but also for their beneficial effects on one’s skin. In fact some Roman emperors and Louis XIV cultivated them in greenhouses just so they would be available during any season specifically for the purpose of keeping their skin young and healthy.
As I mentioned, they do not provide much nutritional punch but they do contain vitamin K, potassium, fiber, some vitamin E, and the trace mineral molybdenum. Cucumbers also contain another trace mineral, silica, which is an integral part of connective tissue and is found in all muscles, ligaments, and cartilage. Cucumbers provide a substantial amount of water (95%), which is very beneficial for the skin. Cucumber juice has been reported in dermatology journals to be beneficial for swollen and irritated skin and has been used to help soothe skin after a sunburn. Despite their low nutrient rating, cucumbers do provide you with a wide array of plant-promoting compounds such as lignans, flavonoids and triterpenes, and these show great promise for health benefits. Cucumbers are excellent sources of these triterpene plant compounds, referred to as cucurbitacins, which have been shown to have significant anti-cancer properties (cucurbitacins can possibly prevent the survival of cancer cells!). Cucumbers also contain three lignans that have shown great promise in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as some types of cancer. Several types of flavonoids in cucumbers have also been shown to combat cancer, reduce inflammation, and are scavengers of “free radicals” that can cause extensive damage to cells in the body. Research on these specific features is in the early stages, so stay tuned as we learn more about the special characteristics of cucumbers.
There are hundreds of varieties of cucumbers available in all shapes and sizes, and their skin texture often varies from smooth to rough. It’s great to have local cucumbers available without wax on the skin, since this is the part of the cucumber I enjoy the most, and this is where you find most of the fiber too! Green cucumbers are the most common but round yellow and orange types as well as numerous others are also available. Once harvested or bought they should be kept cool unless you plan to use them right away. They tend to get limp and lose their crispness with heat. Cucumbers can be used in a variety of ways, from just putting them in salad or adding them to sandwiches or as a garnish for hot dishes. I use them on my occasional nut butter sandwich, which my mother always offered me, and to this day I get surprised reactions about this combination. They go great together since cucumbers offset the dryness of the nut butter and the bread. Eat cucumbers often on a hot summer day. They help quench your thirst and are a great crispy snack. They are great to bring on hikes too for their hydrating qualities!
By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist