What Is Bitter Melon and Can It Help You Manage Your Blood Sugar?
If you aren't familiar with bitter melon, it's time to change that. Typically grown in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean but increasingly available in the U.S., it's one of those foods that's technically a fruit but that's used more like a vegetable, with a crunchy texture and a savory, bitter taste. Also called bitter gourd, it's known for both its flavor and its impressive nutrient profile.
Recently, there's been some exciting research suggesting that bitter melon could be helpful for blood sugar management as well. Whether you're trying to keep your blood sugar stable or just looking to add new fruits and vegetables to your repertoire, here's what you need to know about bitter melon.
What Is Bitter Melon?
Also known as bitter gourd, "bitter melon is technically a fruit of the gourd family," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. This puts it in the same family as other fruits and vegetables like melon, zucchini, cucumbers and pumpkin.
There are two main varieties of bitter melon, Chinese and Indian. Both are long and round, with green skin, and have pale, whitish flesh like a cucumber. "The Chinese variety is long and light green with bumps, and the Indian variety is narrow and has a rough and spiky rind," Sheth says.
The fruit is widely used in Asia and the Middle East, and you'll likely be able to find it at Asian markets and other specialty grocers here in the United States.
What Does Bitter Melon Taste Like?
Unlike most melons, bitter melon has a strong, bitter taste and no sweetness. In fact, the fruit gets more bitter as it ripens. Both its green husk and its white insides are edible, and while you can eat bitter melon raw, many people prefer it cooked, because cooking tones down the bitter flavor.
What Are Bitter Melon's Nutrients?
Here's the nutrition information for 1 cup of cooked bitter melon:
- 53 calories
- 5.5g carbohydrate
- 2.5g fiber
- 1g protein
- 3.5g fat
In addition, bitter melon is an excellent source of vitamin C, with 1 cup providing about half of the recommended dietary allowance . Vitamin C is a nutrient that plays a key role in collagen production (necessary both for wound healing and keeping skin springy), and has antioxidant properties to quell damaging free radicals. There's also some evidence that vitamin C may be useful for blood sugar and blood pressure management for people who have type 2 diabetes. Bitter melon also provides vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin important for immune health.
Then, there's the 2.5 grams of blood-sugar-stabilizing and digestion-friendly fiber in a serving of bitter melon. Overall, "as a high-fiber, low-calorie food with a high level of the antioxidants vitamin A and C, bitter melon can be a great addition to the plate for anyone looking to increase their overall fiber intake to benefit gut health, as well as those looking to add more volume and satiety to their meals," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a New Jersey-based dietitian and author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.
Does Bitter Melon Help with Blood Sugar Management?
All high-fiber, low-sugar fruits and vegetables can help to keep blood sugar steady, because they provide valuable nutrients as well as fiber that slows the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream.
Bitter melon may be particularly good at keeping blood sugar stable. "The key nutrient in bitter melon that may be beneficial for blood sugar management is a chemical called polypeptide-P that acts like insulin," Sheth says.
So, what does that mean? "Bitter melon appears to contain insulin-like properties that help your cells utilize glucose and transport it around your body, while also helping to promote insulin secretion," Palinski-Wade says. "Several small studies indicate it may be beneficial at reducing overall blood glucose levels and A1C in individuals with type 2 diabetes."
For example, in a small randomized controlled trial of 24 patients with type 2 diabetes, published in 2018 in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers found that patients who consumed 2,000 mg of bitter melon supplements every day for three months had significant reductions in hemoglobin A1C (a measure of blood sugar over time) compared to those who did not. (Keep in mind that this study looked at supplementation, which may be different than consuming bitter melon in the diet.)
Additionally, a meta-analysis published in 2019 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology looked at data from 10 existing studies on bitter melon and diabetes management, and found that oral bitter melon supplements appear to have a beneficial effect on blood sugar in people who have type 2 diabetes. The authors note that the available evidence, however, is low-quality, and more research is needed.
How to Start Using Bitter Melon
If you've never cooked bitter melon and are looking to try it, you could start with Caraili (Sautéed Bitter Melon), a Trinidadian dish that balances its bitter flavor with spice and saltiness. Bitter melon is also used as a soup ingredient, so in colder months you might try this Oxtail and Bitter Melon Soup, which is packed with flavors bitter, sweet and savory.
The Bottom Line
Although more research is needed to determine if and why bitter melon seems to help with blood sugar management, the studies that have been done are promising. Next time you see bitter melon at your market or grocery store, pick some up and get cooking.