Looking at the tan, rough-skinned exterior of a cantaloupe, it’s hard to imagine that inside contains such a vibrant and luscious surprise! Another one of Mother Earth’s treats for us! Nothing beats biting into this juicy and sweet orange flesh on a hot summer day. I find myself craving melons of all types during the warm summer months, they are so refreshing and thirst quenching, and full of oh-so-many of the nutrients that we often sweat away during the summer months.
Cantaloupes are members of the cucurbit family (Cucurbitaceae), which also include cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and a long list of melons—including watermelon and honeydew as well as crenshaw, casaba, Persian, and canary melon. Various members of this family can easily cross pollinate so you may see hybrid melons in the store that combine features of cantaloupes with other melons. In the U.S., the cantaloupe is technically a muskmelon. True cantaloupes are not grown in the U.S. but mainly in other parts of the world like the Mediterranean region—Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. The name “cantaloupe” originated from an Italian town called Cantalupo where seeds were transported from Armenia and then planted in the Papal gardens during the 15th and 16th centuries. Since most readers are familiar with the commonly used word cantaloupe as opposed to muskmelon we will stick with “cantaloupe” for this article.
Cantaloupes rank high among fruits with regard to their nutrient profile and nutrient diversity. They also are 90 percent water so are great for maintaining hydration on a hot summer day. They contain significant amounts of carotenoids along with a good amount of vitamin C, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins. Their carotenoid levels are higher than other fruits, specifically the beta-carotene form (a whopping 30 times higher than oranges) but they also contain derivatives of other carotenoid plant compounds that are very beneficial for optimal health: lutein, zeaxanthin, luteolin, and ferulic and caffeic acids. Cantaloupes have been shown to be effective anti-inflammatory agents due to their concentrated content of cucurbitacins. Research has shown that women who consumed cantaloupe regularly had decreased levels of C-reactive proteins, which are indicators of inflammation. Cantaloupe shows promise in its effects on blood-sugar control and insulin metabolism as well. Cantaloupe intake has also been shown to decrease the risk of high blood pressure since they contain a natural diuretic compound.
Picking out a ripe cantaloupe can be a challenge since they are often picked unripe off the vines. I have learned a couple things from practice and from reading up on the topic. First, does it feel heavier than you would expect? If so, it is most likely ripe or close to it. Next, how does it sound when you tap on it? If the sound is dull and deep as opposed to hollow then there is a greater chance it is ripe and about ready to eat. Another key thing is to smell the blossom end, opposite the stem end. It should have a spectacular sweet aroma—but not overly strong since that may indicate the melon is overripe. It should also be fairly firm, just enough to give a little bit with your thumb (but not soft to the touch!).
Another important thing to remember when preparing cantaloupe is that it carries a high risk of exposing us humans to a variety of food-borne illnesses, because it has a rough skin with crevasses where bacteria can be trapped, and because it grows in close contact with the ground where it may be contaminated with a variety of bacteria from the soil, water, or even animals. Bacteria can be spread from the knife you use to cut contaminated rinds of cantaloupe as well as from the surface on which you place whole cantaloupes for preparation. Food-borne illness can be prevented by choosing cantaloupes that have no cracks or soft spots, washing hands with soap and water before handling them, scrubbing the rind with a vegetable brush under cool water then patting it dry before eating or slicing it, and using a clean knife to cut off the stem if it is visible since research has shown that this is the area most likely to have bacterial growth. Cut the melon on a plate or cutting board that can be washed well or even sanitized. Then cut up the melon with a scooper or a different knife to prevent cross contamination or wash the knife well under hot soapy water. Wash all utensils afterwards. Not all cantaloupes carry bacteria but it is best to follow safe practices rather than risk getting food poisoning!
Here are a couple easy recipes, Melon & Grape Salad, and Cantaloupe Smoothie, using succulent cantaloupe to enjoy during the late summer months when many varieties of local melon become available—the best tasting melons are our local ones!
By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist