Hot Melons

He’s simply known as “The Watermelon Man,” and many people stop by to buy the perfect watermelon from the back of his truck at the junction of State Highway 10 and State Highway 51.

If you’ve ever purchased a watermelon, odds are your intent was to take it home, chill it in the refrigerator or an ice box, then slice it open and enjoy later.

Watermelon is a very health-friendly fruit, according to scientists, but the method of storage and preparation also plays an important part in nutrition.

Some officials – including a couple of Oklahoma scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture – now say eating watermelon at room temperature is the most nutritional way to enjoy it.

The scientists - Penelope Perkins-Veazie and Julie Collins, of the USDA South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Lane - studied antioxidants that can counter damage by sun, chemicals and day-to-day living, according to the article posted in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

“All watermelons used in our study had been selected by commercial growers as fully ripe when harvested,” the researchers wrote.

Perkins-Veazie and Collins studied watermelon that had been stored for 14 days at three different temperatures: 70, 55 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit. The studies showed that whole watermelons stored at 70 degrees - about room temperature in air-conditioned buildings - contained a larger amount of nutrients.

Watermelon also gained up to 40 percent more lycopene and 50 to 139 percent extra beta-carotene while stored at 70 degrees, compared with freshly picked fruit.

“Lycopene is good for protection against cancer and heart disease,” said Cherokee Nation Healthy Nation Dietitian Jane Corbin. “Watermelon is also 92 percent water, the highest percentage of any fruit. This, and its amounts of potassium and magnesium, makes it great for hydration, especially when we’re active.”

The results of the recent study have yet to become extremely familiar to area health officials or educational resources – including Corbin, who wanted to learn more about the study to bring awareness to fruit lovers in the area.

Heather Winn, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension, family and consumer sciences educator, knows watermelon is a healthy selection to make at the grocery store.

“I think it’s really just personal preference,” said Winn, referring to eating watermelon at room temperature verses eating it chilled.

Corbin agreed with Winn, and said it’s unlikely people will choose to eat watermelon at room temperature.

“I just don’t see anyone eating it warm,” she said, laughing.

Aaron Kelley lives in the Moodys area and has grown watermelons for years, an activity passed down through his family for what he says has been at least 80 years. He doesn’t like the idea of warm watermelon, either.

“Most people eat it cold as a tradition,” said Kelley.

Cold watermelon is more of a refreshment than a need, according to Corbin.

“It’s just refreshing on a hot summer day to have cold watermelon,” said Corbin.

Area residents simply think warm watermelon is, to put it bluntly, disgusting.

Matthew Long usually totes a watermelon or two down to the river during the summer to enjoy in place of a full meal.

“It would probably make me sick to eat it warm,” said Long, making a weird face at the thought. “The only way to eat watermelon is to eat it very cold and covered with salt. Warm watermelon would just not be good because it just isn’t the same if it’s not been chilled.”

Though some say watermelon at room temperature causes an upset stomach, Winn said that would not be a normal reaction. Corbin agreed there should be nothing wrong with eating a watermelon while it was warm, but did add that chilled is the normal preference – especially in the summer, when people need that refreshing dessert or appetizer.

“Most of it is water, anyway, so I don’t see how it could make anyone sick,” said Kelley.

The scientists’ findings showed watermelons will continue to produce nutrients after being picked, and that chilling them slows the process. For that reason, Corbin suggests anyone who is going to eat a watermelon hold off on chilling it until the day it will be cut and eaten.

“The usual shelf life for watermelons is 14 to 21 days at 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) after harvest,” the scientists wrote.

At refrigerated temperatures such as 41 degrees Fahrenheit, the fruit begins to decay and grow lesions after a week, according to the scientists.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate knowing how more nutritious it is when it’s warm, but I doubt eating it that way is going to be a life-changing event, compared to eating it straight out of a tub of ice,” said Long. “I probably won’t ever switch to warm watermelon just for nutrition, and I don’t ever keep a watermelon long enough for it to grow diseases.”

Watermelons are easily grown – even in Cherokee County, according to Winn, who said it often takes just the simple effort to throw out the leftovers and seeds. The following year, a watermelon, or several watermelons, could begin to grow in a small patch.

Kelley didn’t grow watermelons this year because of the dry weather, but also knows that watermelons grown in a setting similar to this year’s dry and hot temperatures produce more sugar for a better treat.

“This year’s watermelons should be really good, if they were grown around here,” said Kelley.


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