EGUSI (Citrullus colocynthis L) AND THE CHOLESTEROL MYTH
Egusi is one of the healthiest foods in Africa and has been an important staple in diets across Africa for centuries.
It is native to West and Central Africa, especially Nigeria, Ghana and Namibia. It is known under many names such as Citrullus colocynthis L, bitter apple, Agushi, Egusi Melon, Neri-niri, Ikpoghiri.
It is a gourd similar to watermelon, but the flesh inside is yellow and bitter. The seeds are harvested, processed and used as ingredient in soups and stews. The seeds are also similar in appearance to pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
All the parts of the Egusi plant are useful, the fruits, seeds, leaves and roots.
Egusi and Cholesterol
With the rising trend in calorie counting, food label scrutiny, weight loss and fad diets, Egusi has been misclassified as being high in cholesterol.
It is important to know that Egusi being a plant, does not contain cholesterol. Infact, plants generally do not contain cholesterol, they have phytosterol. In the body, phytosterol competes with cholesterol for absorption and metabolism and have been said to lower cholesterol in the blood.1
Cholesterol is not all bad as many believe, it is an important component of cells and contributes to the proper functioning of several bodily functions, such as hormones (Cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone) and vitamin D production. On the other hand, high levels of cholesterol in the body is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular diseases.
It is important to note that the body makes all the cholesterol it needs in the liver, so it does not need to come from diet.
Certain foods that increase your cholesterol levels include; meats, cheese, and other animal products and should be eaten in moderation.
Egusi contains 52% fatty acids, 28.4% protein, 8.2% carbohydrate and fiber 2.7%, vitamins; Niacin, B1, B2, minerals; Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Phosphate, Calcium, Iron, Zinc.7
Egusi contains both unsaturated (oleic and linoleic) at 80% and saturated fatty acids (stearic and palmitic acid) at 20%. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential and so must be obtained from diet. They are considered heart healthy because they lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart diseases.
It contains essential amino acids such as arginine, tryptophan and methionine, leucine and lysine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins help in muscle building, production of hormones and enzymes, contribute to tissue repair and immune defence among several body functions.
Health Benefits of Egusi Melon
- Prevents heart disease: Egusi melon seeds contain high levels of linoleic acid and other unsaturated fatty acids which have been shown to lower bad cholesterol (total and LDL cholesterol) and prevent heart disease.
- Antioxidants: The seeds are rich in antioxidants. They prevent oxidative cell damage, protect the blood vessels from free radical damage. These antioxidants also contribute to its role in preventing heart disease.
- Anticancer benefits: Cucurbitacin B (Egusi leaves/seeds extract) prevents and inhibits the growth of cancer cells. A study published in the International Journal of Cancer showed that Cucurbitacin B rapidly prevented the growth of 50% of brain cancer cells (glioblastoma multiforme) upon contact.2,3 Another study on breast cancer prevention published in Int Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pathology, reported that Cucurbitacin E inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells, caused them to die off and enhanced the anticancer effect of Cisplatin (a commonly prescribed anticancer drug).4
- Antidiabetic: People with diabetes metabolize and utilize glucose poorly, they have persistently high blood glucose levels. Egusi improves insulin sensitivity, lowers fasting blood glucose levels and hemoglobin A1C (High HgA1C indicates a long standing poor control of an individual’s blood sugar).5,6
- Promotes hair growth: Egusi oil promotes hair growth, it induces hair follicles in resting phase to enter anagenic phase (growth phase). According to a study published in the Natural Product Research, petroleum ether of Egusi extract induced hair growth faster than when treated with Minoxidil, a commonly prescribed medication for people with hair loss. Other studies reported significant hair growth with application of egusi oil to the hair.7,8
- Prevents Kwashiorkor and marasmus: it is high in protein and may be substituted in infant food and formula in areas with low food supply. Calcium and Niacin in Egusi seed flour promote healthy bones and energy making it great for consumption by growing children.7
- Anti-inflammatory: The leaf extract of Egusi plant reduces inflammation according to a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. The leaves contain anti-inflammatory antioxidants such as apigenin, luteolin and quercetin that prevent the release of mediators of inflammation. 9,7
- Painkiller: All parts of the Egusi plant; seeds, fruits, stem are effective as pain relievers. However, immature Egusi fruits and seeds are superior painkillers and relatively less toxic. According to a study published in Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the seeds or fruit extract may be applied to the affected area. Don’t apply to open wound.10
- Relieves constipation: Egusi seeds can be consumed in moderate amounts to relieve constipation. The fruits/pulp may be consumed or inserted into the rectum to relieve constipation.10,15
- Promotes younger looking skin: It is rich in vitamins such as E, that have anti aging benefits and prevent damage from the sun.
- Relieves painful diabetic nerve pain: Diabetics with poorly controlled blood sugar are at risk of diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage characterized by burning pain in the arms or the legs). According to a study published in Journal of Diabetes, topical application of the Egusi extract can decrease pain from diabetic nerve damage and improve their quality of life.14
- Prevent and reduce symptoms of Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age that affects menstruation and fertility. Individuals with PCOS are usually obese, have insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension and dyslipidemia. Incorporating Egusi melon into their diets may help manage weight, control diabetes, lower cholesterol and most importantly improve hormonal imbalance.13
- Boosts appetite: It contains vitamin B1 that stimulates appetite and help in energy production.
- Antimicrobial: Egusi melon seed and fruit extracts fight against bacteria and fungal infections.18
- Liver protection: It protects the liver from oxidative damage from free radicals.19
Egusi Oil As A Great Cooking Oil
Egusi oil even though rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin and minerals is currently underutilized as cooking oil.12
It is similar in its health profile and unsaturated fatty acid composition to sunflower, sesame, peanut, soybean, cottonseed oil and many other healthy oils.12
A good cooking oil should be heat stable, withstand peroxidation and be low in linolenic acid. Linolenic acid rapidly undergoes peroxidation, producing undesirable harmful by-products. Egusi oil is a great table and cooking oil as it is very low in linolenic acid compared to other oils. It is also stable upon storage and frying.12,7
Several Ways To Eat Egusi Seeds
1. It can be ground up and used in making soups and stews.
2. It can be roasted or consumed raw as a snack.
3. It can be ground or boiled to make patties.
4. It can be roasted and made into butter, similar to peanut butter.
Preparation and Administration
There are several methods of preparing Egusi for medicinal application; dried or fresh plant materials (seeds, fruits) may be consumed mixed with water, hot milk, olive oil or seeds may be mixed in honey.
Seed and fruit extracts may be applied topically for nerve pain relief, inserted into the rectum as a laxative or into the vagina as douche.
Safety and Precautions
Egusi seeds are generally considered safe. They have been consumed for centuries with no toxicities or fatal cases reported.
The least toxic part of the plant is the stem and the leaves are the most toxic. Mature and immature seeds are no different in terms of toxicity and are safe for consumption.
Consuming immature fruits; contents of the Egusi gourd including the pulp and seeds in excess can be toxic. Toxicity may be in the form of delirium, injury to the brain and intestines.16
Pregnant women, sick individuals, children should not take fruit extract.17
In experimental studies, the toxic dose of the uncooked, fresh fruit extract was found to be between 96 to 3900 mg/kg, which in reality is too high to be consumed at any given time.