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Cantaloupe Facts, Nutrients, Health Benefits, and Safety

Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

Cantaloupes are the most popular melons in the United States. They are sometimes known as muskmelons. Their beautiful orange flesh has a sweet and delicious taste and a fragrant aroma. Cantaloupes are nutritious fruits that contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. They are a great melon to eat on their own or to use in fruit salads, smoothies, or desserts.

Cantaloupes belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, or the gourd family. The family includes pumpkins, watermelons, zucchini, squash, and cucumbers. It also includes members of the genus Luffa. The mature fruits of this genus have a fibrous texture and are used to make luffa (or loofah) sponges. There are some useful fruits and vegetables in the family Cucurbitaceae.

The outer rind or skin of a North American cantaloupe is predominantly a buff or pale orange color. It's covered with ridges arranged in a net-like pattern, which creates a distinctive appearance. The indentations in the net are often pale green. The inner lining of the rind is green and the flesh of the ripe fruit is orange. The presence of indentations on the surface of a cantaloupe means that an important precaution should be taken before using it. The outer surface of the rind can trap harmful bacteria and should be washed carefully before it’s cut.

Types of Cantaloupes

The scientific name of cantaloupes is Cucumis melo. This is the scientific name of most melons, which are close relatives of each other. The European cantaloupe and the North American one are different varieties of Cucumis melo. The European variety is referred to as the “true” cantaloupe. It has the scientific name Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis. Unlike the North American variety, it has either a smooth surface with no netting or a lightly netted surface.

The photos in this article show the variety that I find in my local stores (Cucumis melo var. reticulatus). The facts in the sections below apply to this variety. The fruits have a strongly reticulated or net-like pattern on their skin. Different cultivars of the species exist in North America. The word “cultivar” is derived from the term “cultivated variety.” The cultivars are often referred to by attractive and/or descriptive terms instead of scientific ones. Examples include the Hearts of Gold, Sugar Cube, Ambrosia, and Athena cultivars of the North American cantaloupe.

The origin of the name "cantaloupe" is unknown. The leading theory is that the plant is named after Cantaluppi or Cantalupo, a papal estate that once existed near Rome. This estate is traditionally thought to have been the first European site to cultivate the plant. Africa, Iran, and India have all been suggested as the place where the plant originated.

An uncut cantaloupe

An uncut cantaloupe

Cleaning the Rind to Prevent Foodborne Illness

Both Salmonella and Listeria bacteria may be present on the rind of a cantaloupe. These organisms can cause foodborne illness. Before a cantaloupe is cut, the rind should be scrubbed with a hard brush. The brush should be cleaned afterwards so that it doesn’t contaminate other food. If an uncleaned rind is cut with a knife, bacteria may be transported to the flesh of the fruit, contaminating it.

The fruit should be eaten soon after cutting so that any bacteria on the flesh have only a short time to multiply. Cut cantaloupe must be kept in the refrigerator in a covered container and should be eaten within three days.

Beta-Carotene and Vitamin C

Cantaloupes are rich in beta-carotene, which our bodies change into vitamin A. Vitamin A is needed to keep our eyes and skin healthy and our immune systems working efficiently.

Cantaloupes are also an excellent source of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps to maintain healthy skin and gums, stimulates wound healing, enables the body to make the collagen found in muscles and skin, and helps iron to be absorbed in the small intestine. It may also improve the functioning of the immune system, although evidence for this is mixed.

Vitamins A and C are antioxidants. These are substances that neutralize chemicals called free radicals, preventing them from damaging our DNA. Free radicals are produced by chemical reactions in our bodies. A high concentration of the chemicals in the body may contribute to the development of certain diseases. Some researchers theorize that free radicals also contribute to the aging process.

Clinical trials in which people have taken antioxidant supplements have had very mixed results, with some trials showing no benefit with respect to a health problem—or even harm from taking the supplements—while others have shown benefits. However, plenty of research has shown that eating whole fruits and vegetables containing natural antioxidants and many other helpful substances is beneficial.

Some Other Nutrients in the Fruit

Cantaloupes are also rich in potassium. Potassium is an essential mineral for muscle contraction and the heartbeat. In addition, cantaloupes provide smaller but useful amounts of other vitamins and minerals, including folate, vitamin B6, vitamin K, and magnesium.

A ripe cantaloupe contains a lot of fructose, which gives it sweetness. Unlike sucrose (table sugar), fructose doesn't increase the blood sugar level dramatically. It is a type of sugar, however, and shouldn't be eaten in excess. If you use very ripe cantaloupe in your recipes, you probably won't have to add any other sweetener to them.

An interesting macro photo of cantaloupe rind or skin

An interesting macro photo of cantaloupe rind or skin

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Using the Seeds

The center of a cantaloupe contains a cavity in which the seeds and fibers are located. These are safe to eat. Make sure that you use seeds taken from a cantaloupe that you have cut open, however. Don't eat ones from a seed packet or seeds that have germinated, which may not be safe, depending on what treatments they've had.

The raw seeds are hard and aren't very tasty. Roasting them with vegetable oil and spices improves the texture and produces a delicious taste. You may have to save washed and dried cantaloupe seeds in a refrigerator until you have enough to roast. The seeds can be cooked in oil in a frying pan until they turn light brown. They need about ten minutes in the pan.

Some people use both the cantaloupe fruit and the raw seeds to make a milk by placing them in a blender with water and then filtering the mixture after blending. The seeds reportedly contain protein and fat as well as some carbohydrate.

Choosing a Fruit

When you're buying a cantaloupe in a store, choose one that feels heavy for its size and has no bruises, dents, entirely green areas, or soft spots. The fruit should have a pleasant aroma. You may be able to buy cantaloupe at any time of the year, but the summer ones are more likely to have been grown nearby and will taste sweeter.

It's unnecessary for healthy people to avoid buying cantaloupes because of the fear of bacterial contamination (with one possible exception, as described below). The taste of a ripe cantaloupe is too good to miss unless this is essential. It is important to wash the fruit before using it, though.

Planting the Seeds and Producing the Fruit

I love cantaloupes, but I've never grown any. People with experience growing cantaloupes say that the freshly picked, homegrown fruit is tastier than store-bought fruit. In a suitable climate, it doesn't seem to be too difficult to grow the plants. They need sunlight, heat, and a good water supply that doesn't saturate the soil. Growers say that when the fruits are ready to pick they detach from their stems easily, almost slipping off the stems on their own.

Cantaloupe seeds are sometimes planted in mounds or hills to allow excess water to drain away from the plants. The usual recommendation is to plant five or six seeds about two inches apart and about one inch deep in each mound. The mounds should be four to six inches apart. The seedlings will need to be thinned once they've germinated. The plants grow well next to a trellis.

The seeds can be planted in pots indoors and then transplanted outdoors once they have germinated. It's very important that the roots aren't disturbed as the seedlings are placed in their permanent home.

It's recommended that cantaloupe seeds aren't planted until the soil temperature has reached at least 70°F. In temperate climates with a short growing season, the soil can be covered with black plastic to warm it up, as long as there are holes cut in the plastic.

Salmonella is a rod-shaped bacterium.

Salmonella is a rod-shaped bacterium.

Salmonella Infection Facts

Cantaloupes are occasionally recalled due to the presence of bacteria, such as Salmonella, which can cause foodborne illness. Listeria is sometimes a contaminant on cantaloupes, but Salmonella seems to be a more frequent problem. The bacteria are located on the rind but can easily be spread to the flesh once the cantaloupe is opened. The most common species of Salmonella involved in food poisoning is Salmonella enteritidis.

Possible symptoms of a salmonella infection include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, muscle pain, fever, and chills. The symptoms appear after an incubation period, which ranges from eight to forty-eight hours after infection. The unpleasant effects of the infection generally last for two to five days but may last as long as two weeks.

Salmonella bacteria can often survive and even multiply in the digestive tract of humans. Bacteria may be shed in the feces for months after a person has apparently recovered from the infection. Animals can develop salmonella infections, too. Most infections in humans are caused by eating food contaminated by animal feces. This food includes meats as well as fruits and vegetables. Food hygiene is very important when using raw meat in the kitchen. Fortunately, Salmonella bacteria are killed by cooking.

Dealing With a Salmonella Infection

The immune systems of healthy people are usually able to destroy Salmonella bacteria, resulting in relatively mild infection symptoms that may require no treatment apart from drinking lots of fluids. If symptoms are severe or last for a long time, however, a doctor should be consulted. Young children, elderly people, and people with weak immune systems may become seriously ill from a salmonella infection and require hospitalization.

Anyone with serious symptoms or ones that last a long time after eating cantaloupe should visit a doctor. This is especially important for people in high-risk groups.

Listeriosis

Listeria monocytogenes is most likely to be found in dairy foods made of unpasteurized milk, deli meats, and raw seafood. In recent times, however, it has also appeared on salad greens and cantaloupes. Elderly people, pregnant women, fetuses, and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to ill effects from the bacterial infection.

An infected person may develop gastrointestinal problems, muscle pain, or fever, as in a Salmonella infection. Sometimes the bacterium may cause more serious effects, such as confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Another potentially serious problem is that a pregnant woman's developing baby may be harmed by the bacterium. Listeriosis is sometimes a major disease.

Care Is Necessary

It's important for everyone—even those people who aren't in a high-risk group—to clean cantaloupes thoroughly before cutting them. If you do this, you should have safe access to the delicious and nutritious flesh of the cantaloupe as well as its useful seeds. Pregnant women should consult their doctor about the advisability of including cantaloupes in the diet, however. Anyone else who has concerns about eating the fruit should also consult a doctor. The fruit can be an excellent component of the diet for many people, but it must be prepared properly and avoided if necessary.

References

  • Nutrients in cantaloupes from SELF Nutrition Data
  • Cantaloupe information from WebMD
  • Types of cantaloupes from the San Francisco Chronicle
  • Information about antioxidants from the Harvard School of Public Health
  • Food safety tips for avoiding a Salmonella infection (and other types of foodborne illness) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Listeriosis information from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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