A sweet, juicy slice of cantaloupe is refreshing on a hot summer day, or any time of year. Like other melons, cantaloupe has a high water content (about 90 percent), but being packed with water doesn't mean that this popular fruit lacks nutritional value.
In fact, a cantaloupe is bursting with nutrients: It's loaded with vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) as well as vitamin C, and is a good source of the mineral potassium. Another benefit is that the fruit's deep-orange flesh is full of flavor, but is low in calories.
"This melon is a great choice when it comes to nutrients per calorie," said Heather Mangieri, a Pittsburgh-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, author and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"One cup of cantaloupe contains only about 55 calories (due to its high water content) but offers over 100 percent of your daily needs for vitamin A, over 50 percent of the daily needs for vitamin C, 1.5 grams of fiber and is a good source of potassium," Mangieri said.
What's more, a 2006 study published in HortScience found that cantaloupes have even higher concentrations of beta-carotene, which are plant pigments found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables that the body converts to vitamin A, than oranges, even though oranges are brighter in color. Cantaloupe is one of the best sources of vitamin A among fruits and the top source among melons.
Here are the nutrition facts for one cup of cantaloupe, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
Cantaloupe Serving size: 1 cup, cubed (160 g) Calories 54 (Calories from Fat 3) *Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
|Nutrition Facts Cantaloupe Serving size: 1 cup, cubed (160 g) Calories 54 Calories from Fat 3 *Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.||Amt per Serving||%DV*||Amt per Serving||%DV*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%||Total Carbohydrate 14g||5%|
|Cholesterol 0mg||0%||Dietary Fiber 1g||6%|
|Sodium 26mg||1%||Sugars 13g|
It is thought that the fruit was named "cantaloupe" for Cantalupo, an Italian town near Vatican City, where melon seeds brought from Armenia were planted in the papal gardens during the Renaissance, according to World's Healthiest Foods.
Cantaloupes are in the Cucurbitaceae, or gourd family, which includes other plants that grow on a vine, such as watermelon, honeydew and casaba melons, as well as pumpkins, squash and cucumbers.
According to the University of Illinois Extension, the cantaloupe is a variety of muskmelon. North American cantaloupes (Cucumis melo reticulatus) are known for their uniform "netting" over the rind; European cantaloupes (Cucumis melo cantalupensis) have greener skin, little netting, deep grooves and would surprise most Americans by being called cantaloupes.
Picking a ripe one
Selecting a fresh cantaloupe can be tricky because you can't see the inside the melon. But according to Mangieri, freshness is critical to the fruit's sweet flavor. Pick up a cantaloupe and if it feels heavier than you expected, it's likely ripe. A ripe melon should smell sweet when you place your nose next to the fruit, and you should be able to push in the skin a little bit with your thumb.
If the melon is not quite ripe when you buy it, you can set it on a kitchen counter for a few days. But don't wash the fruit at this point — wait until you're ready to cut the melon to wash its outer surface to reduce the chance for bacterial growth.
"While a cantaloupe will become softer and juicer with time, the fruit's sugar content [and sweetness] will not significantly increase after it is harvested," Mangieri told Live Science.
Cantaloupe is not a well-studied fruit on its own. Most of the research on the health benefits of the melon has focused on a person's total dietary intake of fruits and vegetables in general, or studies have looked at diets rich in specific nutrients or plant compounds found in these fruits, such as carotenoids, potassium or vitamin C. This makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about the unique health benefits of cantaloupe.
Cantaloupe is a rich food source of vitamins A and C.
"Vitamins A and C are both antioxidants that work to keep your body healthy," Mangieri said. Antioxidants can have protective effects by neutralizing free radicals, which can damage DNA in cells and promote chronic inflammation in the body.
Free radicals cause cell damage and disruption that can contribute to diseases. "[Antioxidants such as vitamins A and C] may help prevent conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis," Mangieri added.
There is strong evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, and can also lower blood pressure, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Including more fruits and vegetables in your diet can keep your eyes healthy and may help fend off cataracts and macular degeneration, two common age-related eye problems, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The vitamin A found in cantaloupe is a key nutrient for good vision, Mangieri said.
The fiber and water in cantaloupe can aid digestion and help prevent constipation, when included as part of a high-fiber diet, such as a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Risks of eating cantaloupe
In general, enjoying cantaloupe poses little risk for most people. However, cantaloupes have been linked to more than 10 foodborne illness outbreaks in the past 10 to 15 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The majority of these incidents were bacterial infections caused by salmonella, but people have also been sickened by E.coli, and there were some deaths reported in a multistate outbreak of listeria.
In one analysis published in Epidemiology and Infection in 2006, researchers found that 25 outbreaks were linked to the consumption of cantaloupe and reported to the CDC between 1973 and 2003. These outbreaks affected more than 1,600 people, but the researchers suspect that the actual number of people sickened by eating contaminated cantaloupe was probably much higher because some cases of cantaloupe-related illness may never have been reported to health officials.
Cantaloupe may be vulnerable to outbreaks of foodborne illness because the fruit is grown in close contact with the ground, where it may become contaminated with bacteria from the soil, water or animals before it is harvested, according to Colorado State University. In addition, the melons have a rough and textured outer surface that can trap bacteria. Bacteria can also be transmitted during the processing of pre-cut melon, from a knife cutting through contaminated rinds. If the same contaminated knife continues to be used, it can transfer bacteria to the flesh inside. (To stay safe when cutting cantaloupe at home, see the tips below.)
Bacterial contamination is not the only possible risk from eating cantaloupe. Some people with allergies to ragweed pollen may also develop symptoms of oral allergy syndrome immediately after eating melons, such as cantaloupe, watermelon or honeydew.
When some people who experience ragweed allergies start to eat cantaloupe, they may get an itchy feeling in their throats and lips or have swelling in their mouths, tongues and throats. This reaction occurs because the body's immune system recognizes a similarity between the allergy-causing proteins in ragweed pollen and the proteins in the food. (Besides melons, ragweed sufferers may also be sensitive to kiwi, banana, cucumber and zucchini.)
Tips for cutting cantaloupe
- Purchase melons without any visible bruises, cracks or soft spots on the skin.
- Wash hands with soap and water before handling cantaloupes.
- Scrub the outer surface of the melon with a vegetable brush under cool tap water before eating the fruit. Pat the fruit dry with paper towels to remove excess water.
- Using a clean knife and cutting board, cut off the stem end (where the fruit was attached to the vine) of the cantaloupe and throw it out. Studies have found that this area is most likely to have bacterial contamination.
- Cut the entire melon in half and scoop out the seeds and strings. Using a knife or melon baller, cut up the orange flesh.
- After cutting up the melon, wash any utensils and cutting boards used in hot, soapy water and refrigerate the sliced melon.
Cantaloupe seeds can be roasted and eaten as a snack.
California is the largest cantaloupe-producing state in the country. Over half of all U.S. cantaloupes are grown there. The next six states are Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana and Texas.
The United States also imports cantaloupes each year, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico.
Additional reporting by Cari Nierenberg, Live Science contributor.