Is bitter cucumber safe to eat? (Health effects)
In this brief guide, we will answer the question “Is bitter cucumber safe to eat?”. We also will discuss how cucumber becomes bitter and its health effects.
Is bitter cucumber safe to eat?
No, bitter cucumbers are not safe to eat because they contain cucurbitacin C (CuC), a bitter-tasting compound that has the potential to be toxic to humans. While consuming a single bitter cucumber is unlikely to cause immediate harm, there have been reported cases of food poisoning associated with their consumption of cucurbitacin.
Unfortunately, the exact levels of CuC in the foods that caused these incidents were not measured, making it difficult to establish a safe threshold for consumption. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid consuming bitter cucumbers to ensure safety. (1)
What is cucurbitacin?
Cucurbitacins are a wide range of chemical compounds present in various plants of the Cucurbitaceae family. They are primarily responsible for the presence of cucurbitacins, giving certain plant species, such as cucumbers, their bitter taste.
The levels of cucurbitacins can differ among different plant tissues, with fruits commonly having the highest concentration at the point of maturity, while seeds usually contain negligible amounts. (2)
What are the health effects of Cucurbitacins?
The main function of cucurbitacins is their role as a defense mechanism against pests and insects during the growth of cucumber plants. These compounds display cytotoxic and anti-cancer properties in cucumber plants. Furthermore, they have been utilized as purgatives and anti-inflammatory agents.
Cucurbitacin B, for instance, has been identified as an inhibitor that effectively slows the growth of prostate cancer cells. Both Cucurbitacin B and Cucurbitacin E have shown promising results in combating atherosclerosis. Cucurbitacin E, in particular, has the potential to reduce the formation of fat cells and improve insulin signaling.
Additionally, Cucurbitacin D and Cucurbitacin I exhibit remarkable cytotoxicity against various human cancer cell lines. It is noteworthy that cucurbitacin C also demonstrates exceptionally high cytotoxicity. (1, 3)
What are the ill effects of Cucurbitacins?
Cucurbitacins are known for their high toxicity, which can result in severe poisoning and even death in animals, especially cattle and sheep. This toxicity is observed when these animals consume fruits from plants in the Cucumis and Cucurbita genera.
Although certain wild watermelon species have historically been utilized for pharmaceutical purposes, their toxicity has prompted restrictions on their use.
Symptoms of cucurbitacin poisoning include digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even hair loss. It is important to note that over time, most commercially grown cucumber varieties have evolved to become non-bitter. However, the leaves of cucumber plants still retain the bitter trait. (1, 3)
What are the effects of cucumber consumption?
Cucumbers offer a multitude of health benefits. Their high fiber content aids in managing cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of cardiovascular issues. Moreover, cucumbers contain potassium and magnesium, which significantly reduce sodium intake and promote healthy blood pressure levels.
They play an integral role in managing diabetes by regulating blood sugar levels and preventing sudden spikes. Additionally, cucumbers possess potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Additionally, cucumbers are a valuable source of essential nutrients, including potassium, magnesium, and dietary fiber. They are known for their blood pressure-lowering effects, thus reducing the likelihood of heart disease.
The soluble fiber in cucumbers supports healthy digestion, while its high water content softens stool, preventing constipation and maintaining regular bowel movements. Cucumbers also provide a variety of vitamins, including vitamins A and B, in addition to antioxidants like lignans. (4)
What factors affect the occurrence of bitterness in cucumbers?
The bitterness in cucumbers can be influenced by low temperature, drought conditions, genetic characteristics, and the application of fertilizers. When cucumbers are cultivated in lower temperatures, a genetic factor called SN-1601, a type of single nucleotide polymorphism, plays a crucial role in regulating the expression of the bitter gene, known as the Bi gene.
Additionally, lower temperatures increase the production rate and content of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), helping cucumber plants withstand environmental stress. H2S also promotes the upregulation of the gene responsible for cucurbitacin C synthesis, leading to an intensified production of cucurbitacin C. (1)
Is it possible to remove the bitterness in cucumber?
Yes, recent research has revealed that lactic acid fermentation offers a method to mitigate or alter the unwanted compounds responsible for toxicity or off-flavors. Through the metabolic activity of lactic acid bacteria, undesirable constituents in plant foods can be eliminated via processes such as hydrolysis, decarboxylation, and enzymatic reactions.
In the natural fermentation of cucumbers, various microorganisms, including aerobic bacteria, lactic acid bacteria (LAB), yeasts, and molds, are associated with the process.
LAB, while initially a minor component of the cucumber’s natural microbiota, has been shown to play a significant role in reducing the concentration of compounds like cucurbitacin C during the acidification and fermentation of cucumbers, thereby diminishing their bitterness. (1)
In this brief guide, we answered the question “Is bitter cucumber safe to eat?”. We also discussed how cucumber becomes bitter and its health effects.
Through my research, I was able to learn how the bitter compounds are formed in cucumber and how it can affect human health. In my perspective, bitter cucumber is not safe as the substance responsible for bitterness is toxic and the necessary amount that may cause harm is not known.
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FAN, Xinyue. Cucurbitacins in Bitter and Pickling Cucumber and Cucurbitacin C Reduction During Cucumber Fermentation and Acidification. North Carolina State University, 2021.
KAUSHIK, Ujjwal; AERI, Vidhu; MIR, Showkat R. Cucurbitacins–an insight into medicinal leads from nature. Pharmacognosy reviews, v. 9, n. 17, p. 12, 2015.
QING, Zhixing et al. Identification of seven undescribed cucurbitacins in Cucumis sativus (cucumber) and their cytotoxic activity. Phytochemistry, v. 197, p. 113123, 2022.
MALLICK, Pushpa Karna. Evaluating potential importance of cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.-Cucurbitaceae): a brief review. International Journal of Applied Sciences and Biotechnology, v. 10, n. 1, p. 12-15, 2022.