Cucumbers

Cucumbers have not received as much press as other vegetables in terms of health benefits, but this widely cultivated food provides us with a unique combination of nutrients. At the top of the phytonutrient list for cucumbers are its cucurbitacins, lignans, and flavonoids. These three types of phytonutrients found in cucumbers provide us with valuable antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer benefits. Cucumbers are a valuable source of conventional antioxidant nutrients including vitamin C, beta-carotene, and manganese. In addition, cucumbers contain numerous flavonoid antioxidants, including quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, and kaempferol. In animal studies, fresh extracts from cucumber have been shown to provide specific antioxidant benefits, including increased scavenging of free radicals and increased overall antioxidant capacity. Fresh cucumber extracts have also been shown to reduce unwanted inflammation in animal studies. Cucumber accomplishes this task by inhibiting activity of pro-inflammatory enzymes like cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2), and by preventing overproduction of nitric oxide in situations where it could increase the likelihood of excessive inflammation. Research on the anti-cancer benefits of cucumber is still in its preliminary stage and has been restricted thus far to lab and animal studies. Interestingly, however, many pharmaceutical companies are actively studying one group of compounds found in cucumber—called cucurbitacins—in the hope that their research may lead to development of new anti-cancer drugs. Cucurbitacins belong to a large family of phytonutrients called triterpenes. Cucurbitacins A, B, C, D and E have all been identified within fresh cucumber. Researchers have determined that several different signaling pathways (for example, the JAK-STAT and MAPK pathways) required for cancer cell development and cancer cell survival can be blocked by activity of cucurbitacins. Eventually, we expect to see human studies that confirm the anti-cancer benefits of cucumbers when consumed in a normal, everyday meal plan. A second group of cucumber phytonutrients known to provide anti-cancer benefits are its lignans. The lignans pinoresinol, lariciresinol, and secoisolariciresinol have all been identified within cucumber. Interestingly, the role of these plant lignans in cancer protection involves the role of bacteria in our digestive tract. When we consume plant lignans like those found in cucumber, bacteria in our digestive tract take hold of these lignans and convert them into enterolignans like enterodiol and enterolactone. Enterolignans have the ability to bind onto estrogen receptors and can have both pro-estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects. Reduced risk of estrogen-related cancers, including cancers of the breast, ovary, uterus, and prostate has been associated with intake of dietary lignans from plant foods like cucumber. Even though long, dark green, smooth-skinned garden cucumbers are familiar vegetables in the produce sections of most groceries, cucumbers actually come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes and textures. You'll find white, yellow, and even orange-colored cucumbers, and they may be short, slightly oval, or even round in shape. Their skins can be smooth and thin, or thick and rough. In a technical sense, cucumbers are actually fruits, not vegetables. (Fruits are parts of flowering plants that come from the ovary.) But we've become accustomed to thinking and referring to cucumbers as vegetables. All cucumbers belong to the botanical plant family called Curcubitaceae. This broad family of plants includes melons and squashes. The cucumbers we're most familiar with in the grocery store belong to the specific genus/species group, Cucumis sativus. While there are literally hundreds of different varieties of Cucumis sativus, virtually all can be divided into two basic types: slicing and pickling. Slicing cucumbers include all varieties that are cultivated for consumption in fresh form. In the United States, commonly planted varieties of slicing cucumber include Dasher, Conquistador, Slicemaster, Victory, Comet, Burpee Hybrid, and Sprint. These varieties tend to be fairly large in size and thick-skinned. Their size makes them easier for slicing, and their thick skin makes them easier to transport in whole food form without damage. (In many other countries, however, slicing cucumbers may be smaller in size and may be much more thinly skinned.) Pickling cucumbers include all varieties that are cultivated not for consumption in fresh form, but for processing into pickles. In the United States, commonly planted varieties of pickling cucumber include Royal, Calypso, Pioneer, Bounty, Regal, Duke, and Blitz. Some of these pickling varieties are black-spine types (in reference to the texture of their outer skin) and some are white-spine. While pickling cucumbers can always be eaten fresh, their smaller size and generally thinner skins make them easier to ferment and preserve/jar. Pickling is a process than can be used for many different foods. It's not limited to cucumbers and or even to the vegetable food group. In general, the word "pickling" refers to a method of preventing food spoilage that involves soaking in a liquid and/or fermenting. While the language used to describe pickles can be very confusing, there are only two basic types of pickles: fermented and non-fermented. Fermenting is a process in which fresh foods (in this case cucumbers) are allowed to soak in a solution for an extended period of time that allows microorganisms to make changes in the food. Among these changes is a build-up of lactic acid that serves to protect the pickles from spoilage. When fermented in an appropriate solution, fresh foods like cucumbers can be transformed in a way that greatly increases their shelf life. Cucumbers are typically fermented in brine (water that's been highly saturated in salt). In fact, the word "pickle" actually comes from the Dutch "pekel" meaning brine. Alongside of salt, pickling brines often contain other ingredients, including vinegar, dill seed, garlic, and lime (calcium hydroxide or calcium oxide). "Dill pickles" get their name from the addition of dill seed to the brine. "Kosher dills" are brined not only with dill, but also with garlic. Fermented pickles are often called "brined pickles," but here's where confusion can set it. These two terms aren't truly interchangeable since some brined pickles are "quick brined" and haven't been given time for fermentation. When pickles are "quick brined," the brining solution usually contains a significant amount of vinegar, and it's this added vinegar that prevents the pickles from spoiling, not build up of lactic acid through the microbial fermentation process. Non-fermented pickles of all kinds—often referred to as "quick pickled"—rely on the addition of vinegar or another highly-acidic solution to prevent spoilage. "Quick pickling" with the use of vinegar can be accomplished in a matter of days. While genetically engineered cucumbers do exist, genetic engineering is not responsible for the existence of seedless varieties of cucumbers. Through a natural process called parthenogenesis, cucumber plants can fruit without pollen. In the absence of pollen, seeds do not develop in the fruit. While some people have a personal preference for seedless cucumbers, it's worth remembering that cucumber seeds are rich source of cucumber nutrients that are sometimes absent in the pulp and skin. *As noted in the world’s healthiest foods.