Wonderful watermelon

In the UK, summer seems to have disappeared! Fortunately, though, the gorgeous seasonal fruit hasn’t. This really is my favourite time of year for delicious, fragrant fresh fruit that’s packed full of flavour and fabulous nutrients to keep us healthy.

Global markets means we can have most fruit all year round, but with a hefty cost both environmentally and flavour wise. Those force fed strawberries that land on the super market shelves in early February are always disappointing and are nothing compared to ones that are locally grown and ripened in the early summer sun.

As well as flavour, the other great benefit of eating summer fruits in the summer is that they provide you with specific nutrients that protect the part of you that’s at risk at this time of year – your skin.
The strong summer sun (when it decides to come out!) can play havoc with skin; too much UV exposure is connected to a wide variety of issues from wrinkles to cancer. It’s those naughty free-radicals that cause the damage. Fruits such as raspberries, nectarines, tomatoes and watermelon are packed with anti-oxidants – vitamin C and other phytonutrients – that mop up the free radicals and prevent long term damage.

I don’t tend to buy watermelon whilst in the UK as it can be really expensive, particularly after living in India where they are locally grown and seriously cheap! But being summer, the prices are currently more reasonable, so I’m taking advantage of this delicious giant fruit.

As the name suggests, watermelons contain a lot of water – 92%. So it’s really hydrating and great for a hot day. But on top of that, it also contains a surprisingly large number of nutrients that really help our bodies in different ways. For a start, the bright red/pink flesh contains a load of lycopene, a phytonutrient renowned for its’ ability to help prevent and reduce cancers, particularly prostate and ovarian. It’s even a more concentrated source than tomatoes, which are usually recognised as having fabulous lycopene levels.

It’s also great for keeping our guts happy and healthy, with a good fibre content and lots of anti-inflammatory amino acids such as choline and citrulline. Research shows that citrulline also helps to keep blood pressure under control and can reduce muscle soreness and increase recovery time after intense exercise. I decided to try this out the other day after my morning training run by blitzing some watermelon flesh in the blender to produce juice (but with the fibre included). I’m not sure if it made any difference, but it certainly tasted good!

And as mentioned above, watermelon contains good amounts of vitamin A and C which help support our skin and hair so not only will it help hydrate you on a hot day, it will also repair sun damage and keep those wrinkles at bay. That’s got to be good!

Because of it’s crisp, crunchy texture, watermelon is great in quick summer salads. I love this combination of watermelon, spinach, avocado and pine nuts – it’s super tasty and has a good mix of textures. The avocado will help increase the absorption of vitamin A as well as give a great helping of lovely vitamin E, another skin enhancing vitamin, and healthy fats. Pine nuts have been added in just because they make me think of summer (plus they are a fabulous source of manganese as well as healthy fats and fibre), but you could use walnuts, or pumpkins seeds if preferred.

So if you’re sunning yourself on a Mediterranean beach or just waiting at home for the sun to come back out, why not add a little watermelon into your diet – your skin will love you for it!

Watermelon, spinach, avocado and pine nut salad (serves 2)
1 slice watermelon chopped into cubes
2-3 handfuls baby spinach
1-2 handfuls pea shoots or lambs lettuce
1-2 spring onions or half small onion, sliced
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 small ripe avocado, sliced
drizzle flaxseed oil (optional)
salt and pepper
Scatter the leaves in two bowls and add the chopped watermelon and onion. Mix together lightly with your hands then scatter the avocado and pine nuts over the top. Drizzle a little oil around and season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Tomato power!

Natural food products are constantly under investigation by scientists – and often the large corporations that fund them – to find the next superfood, the key to health or a particular chemical that can be claimed to be discovered and then patented. One of the latest studies to hit the headlines is about tomatoes, or rather the lycopene found in them. Published in Neurology magazine this month (the abstract can be found at http://www.neurology.org/content/79/15/1540.abstract if you’re interested!), a group of scientists in Finland monitored over 1000 men for 12 years and found the risk of stroke was cut by 55% in those with the highest blood levels of lycopene.  That’s pretty impressive!
Lycopene has already been heralded as a hero with evidence that it can help prevent or slow the growth of certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. There are even tomatoes that have been bred to have double the amount of lycopene, and no doubt sold at a premium price! (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4896026.stm).

Lycopene is a carotenoid, a phytochemical that gives the red pigment to some fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon, red bell peppers and papaya, but sadly not strawberries or cherries! It’s a powerful antioxidant that soaks up free radicals roaming around the body. These great anti oxidant properties have been connected to improving conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and now stroke. Free radicals are also associated with the ageing process, so hopefully if they are mopped up by lycopene, youthful skin will follow (maybe!).

The percentage of lycopene in red fruit and vegetables increases as it ripens. In fact, the lycopene content of tomatoes has been shown to increase and become more bioavailable when processed. This includes tinned tomatoes and manufactured tomato products such as pasta sauce and ketchup. This is great for food companies, some of whom are sponsoring ongoing research into the beneficial effects of ketchup. Unfortunately, from a purely nutritional point of view, this causes some other problems; the tinning process increases the sodium content of tomatoes and most sauces and ketchups have lots of added sugar, salt and preservatives, so not so good for overall health. And of course the supplement industry has seen an opportunity and you can buy lycopene tablets, but are these really necessary?

Tomatoes as a whole food contain lots of other goodies including potassium and vitamin C which tend to be lost when processed and heated, along with B vitamins, beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and of course has fibre and no cholesterol, all good reasons to eat them in their natural form, a fantastic whole food in a healthy diet.

Personally, I love to roast tomatoes with onion, a little olive oil and some garlic, then when cooked blitz them all together and reheat either as a sauce or add some vegetable stock to make a delicious tomato soup. When we first came to India, it was quite hard to find tinned tomatoes or tomato sauces that were suitable for someone with food intolerance – milk turns up in the strangest of things! So I had to get used to using the real thing, and found this to be the best way – the roasting concentrates the flavour and the blitzing increases the bioavailability of the lycopene without adding lots of nasty extras.

Wonderful watermelon

Interestingly, watermelon contains more lycopene than tomatoes, but also a higher water content, so you would need to eat a larger amount. It’s not as easily available in the west as tomatoes though, although over here in India, it so easy to find – and cheap – and works great as a base for smoothies.
Of course, the real message in this latest research is that fruit and vegetables are good for us! Eating a full range of produce provides us with all the nutrients we need to stay healthy – as long as they are in their wholefood form. If we only ate red pigmented vegetables then not only would we miss out on all the other antioxidants and nutrients available, in the long run the pigment could become concentrated in our skin and as much as I love tomatoes, I don’t really want to look like one!

Interesting tomato fact (well I found it interesting!!)
Apparently, a whole tomato has no flavour; that only comes by biting, cutting or cooking it. Carefully extracted tomato liquid has no taste. Biting into the fruit releases an enzyme that breaks down larger molecules into smaller ones and gives it the flavour. This enzyme reacts differently when cut crossways, so they will have more flavour sliced.