in post

24 July 2021

Bitter melons

There's a funny story in The Guardian about courgette poisoning. Apparently ordinary zuccinis can, if they happen to cross-pollinate with wild members of the same family, become poisonous, causing stomach cramps, vomiting, internal bleeding, hair loss, death (though the latter is quite rare). Tim Dowling says "Now I’ve experienced this poisoning first-hand, it seems weird to me that people are even allowed to grow courgettes."

The gustatory sign of such poison is bitterness. All members of the Cucurbitaceae family, including cucumbers, gourds, melons, etc. contain cucurbitacins, which are responsible for such poisoning, as a self defence mechanism, but usually, in the edible varieties, the amount is very small.

But then I remembered that in India they often use a vegetable (botanically a fruit) called bitter gourd (in Hindi, karela), so looked this up on the web. Apparently it has long been popular not only in India but in China (a slightly different variety) and South East Asia. When I find it on my plate, I move it to one side, because, like most Westerners, I hate bitter tastes. Humans in general are conditioned to avoid such flavors, since they are usually a warning of a potential poison.

Besides karela, there is another bitter gourd, the bottle gourd (lauki in Hindi), which is consumed. Both of these foods are reputed to have amazing therapeutic properties and health effects. Yet an Indian scientist died after consuming lauki juice, prompting articles like: Bitter bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria): Healer or killer? in the International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology and Neurological Diseases:

In a recent magazine, an article reported the death of a well-known scientist of Delhi, who consumed fresh juice of bitter bottle gourd. [6] Similar cases were also reported at Dehradun, Mehasana, other parts of India, and the globe. An article in a leading journal reports of fifteen such cases. [7]

The above-mentioned patients developed severe hematemesis, dizziness, and sweating, and collapsed. However, timely management saved some of them. [7],[8],[9]

Bottle gourd, which belongs to the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae) can also turn toxic and dangerous like mushrooms. Cucurbitacins are complex compounds found in plants belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family. The tetracyclic triterpenoid Cucurbitacin compounds are responsible for the bitterness in vegetables like cucumber, squash, eggplants, melon, pumpkin, and gourds.

High levels of Cucurbitacin compounds are triggered by high temperature, wide temperature swings, low pH, very little water, low soil fertility, and also due to improper storage of vegetables or over-matured vegetables. These compounds are highly toxic to mammals. These toxins, when absorbed into the blood could cause hepatitis, pancreatitis, cholecystitis, and renal damage. This in turn can lead to multiorgan dysfunction, which could be fatal. [4],[6],[7],[8],[9]

It is advisable to consume cooked bottle gourd. Once cooked, the bottle gourd becomes harmless, offering health benefits. A small piece of bottle gourd should be tasted (from both ends); to make sure that it is not bitter. Bitter bottle gourd should be discarded and not be used even after cooking.

An article about a related foodstuff in India, the bottle gourd, has the following:
GREEN POISON? - Indian Express:

It is commonly believed that bitterness is nature's protection for mammals from natural toxins in vegetables and fruits. However, bitterness needs to be qualified. A certain amount of bitterness in vegetables like karela (bitter gourd), fenugreek or the cucumber family (cucumber, squash, eggplants, melon, pumpkin and gourds) is normal and we are all accustomed to it. Tetracyclic triterpenoid cucurbitacins, complex compounds found in the cucumber family, are responsible for the bitterness in these vegetables. These are highly toxic to mammals, however, at what levels are they toxic need to be established. Higher levels of these chemicals are triggered by wide temperature swings, low pH, high temperature, too little water, low soil fertility and improperly stored or over-matured vegetables.

Where they are consumed, bitter vegetables like karela and lauki are apparently appreciated, and people apparently grow used to their bitter taste. So the question should probably be what level of bitterness is a sign that we should stay away from them? To me, karela already tastes awfully bitter - I cannot bear it. So the problem is solved for me.

Links

Rwandans have long been used to Pegasus-style surveillance - The Guardian

Former intelligence chief and RNC co-founder Kayumba Nyamwasa – who has survived repeated attempts on his life in South Africa – notes that the RPF has enjoyed extremely close military and intelligence ties with Israel since the genocide, and that the line between Israel’s military and spin-off firms selling intelligence equipment is distinctly blurred.

Israel has a history of cozying up to repressive regimes and selling them weapons. Maybe in the early years of the state, it felt a need to cultivate such connections. One would think that by now it could allow itself to be more discerning in choosing its customers - if it cares at all. But then, the same arguments could be made against selling weapons technology to Israel.

Russia names Bellingcat reporting partner a ‘foreign agent’ - The Guardian

Delta variant: Pfizer Covid vaccine 39% effective in Israel, prevents severe illness - CNBC