Chinese bitter melon lat. Momordica charantia is a plant that grows in tropical and subtropical areas of Asia, East Africa, parts of the Amazon, the Caribbean and South America. The whole plant together with the fruit and seeds is used as food and for medicine.
The plant grows as a vine with long fragmented leaves and yellow flowers. The fruit looks like a warty zucchini, elongated in shape and resembles a cucumber. It is considered as one of the most bitter fruits or vegetables. Young green fruit matures to an orange-yellow ripe fruit which then opens and releases many red seeds. All parts of the plant are bitter but edible: the green fruit is a good source of vitamin C, contains vitamin A, phosphorus, iron and flavonoids. Stems and leaves contain vitamin A.
The green fruits are used for culinary purposes, they are prepared by boiling, baking or frying in a multitude of ways. Bitter melon can be consumed raw as a fruit, can be juiced, the seeds can be ground and then added to food, or the whole fruit can be cut onto pieces and used to make a tea by boiling in water. Dried leaves are used to male tea which prevents and treats malaria, aids digestion and has an antibacterial action. The bitter melon extract can be purchased in the form of herbal supplements and it is used for the treatment of diabetes.
The extract contains at least three active ingredients with anti-diabetic action (charantin, vicin, polypeptide-p). Bitter melon contains a type of lectin, which lowers the concentration of glucose (hypoglycemic effect) by acting on peripheral tissues and reducing appetite (similarly as insulin acts in the brain). In traditional Chinese and Indian medicine bitter melon was used for centuries as a natural remedy for diabetes, and this property was recently discovered by modern Western science. Besides that, traditional Chinese and Indian medicine use bitter melon for it’s action to bacteria, viruses, preventing cancer and lowering blood pressure.
Some of the above observations are also scientifically validated:
– an animal model showed that the bitter melon extract reduces the growth of head and neck tumors. The consumption of supplements in the form of extracts can beneficially affect reproduction and destruction of breast cancer cells, as has been shown in vitro study conducted in 2010 that was published in the journal Cancer Research;
– a study from the University of Colorado published in the journal Carcinogenesis in March 2013 showed that bitter melon extract reduced glucose metabolism in pancreatic cancer cells killing them. Since bitter gourd extract has a positive effect on diabetes type II, which often precedes pancreatic cancer, scientists have wondered if they could apply the extract directly to pancreatic cancer. In this study they proved that mice fed the bitter gourd juice had 60% less chance of developing cancer than the control group.
– Ratna B. Ray et al.: Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) Extract inhibits Cancer Breast Cell Proliferation by Modulating Cell Cycle Regulatory Genes and Promotes Apoptosis. Cancer Research, 23. February 2010.
– Kaur, M. et al.: Bitter melon juice activates cellular energy sensor AMP-activated protein kinase causing apoptotic death of human pancreatic carcinoma cells. Carcinogenesis, June 2013 34 (7) pp: 1585-92.