Cucurbits are Great - but Synergy is Better.

Since mid-July is prime time for heat loving cucurbit crops, I thought I’d do a little investigating about what health benefits we get from them. As we hear constantly, as with fresh fruits and vegetables generally, cucurbits are high in nutrients and antioxidants, and when consumed as part of a healthy diet, can help prevent diseases including heart disease and cancer.

However, what I found particularly interesting when looking for the specific benefits of lycopene and β-carotene - which are found in high concentrations in cucumbers, cantaloupes, and watermelons - is the concept of synergy. Scientific studies have consistently shown that regular consumption of fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and even some cancers. Antioxidants have become widely known and valued components of our diets, and attempts have been made to isolate the specific antioxidant nutrients believed to deliver the disease prevention benefits. As many as 68% of Americans take vitamins and other nutritional supplements, and the dietary supplement industry is a $37 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

However, scientific evidence shows that specific nutrients in isolation do not provide the same benefits as nutrients we absorb in their natural complex combinations in whole foods.

According to Dr. Ru Hai Lui, in her 2004 article on cancer prevention in the Journal of Nutrition, taken alone, individual antioxidants studied in clinical trials have not shown consistent disease prevention effects. It’s actually the combination of phytochemicals, what Dr. Hai Lui calls “the additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables” that are responsible for the most potent antioxidant and anticancer effects.

This doesn’t mean you have to top your slice of watermelon with a cup of spinach and an ounce of blueberries to get benefits from that single bite. However, you should aim to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as a part of your diet as a whole.

I think sometimes people are disappointed when ‘new’, ‘cutting edge’ science shows the same thing we’ve known forever - eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

However, I think we should be encouraged to learn that it’s not “expensive dietary supplements” but the “antioxidants or bioactive compounds - acquired through whole-food consumption” that will benefit us the most (Lui, 2004). Perhaps I am extrapolating a bit too much, but I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if even half of the $37 billion we spent on supplements went to local farmers instead? What would an additional $18.5 billion mean for our rural communities?

And from a practical perspective that change would come from indulging in more delicious smoothies, stir-frys, and main course salads?