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Watermelon's 'natural Viagra' properties lead to rise in demand

They are packed with vitamins, taste yummy, and are a staple at family picnics every summer. Add to that the fact that Texas A&M's Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center have discovered that they act as a natural Viagra, it’s no wonder everyone loves watermelon.

Dan Avila, a watermelon grower from Turlock who has fields around the county, said that his family has been growing the tasty fruit since 1916. He said that watermelons are more in demand now than at any time in the past.

Avila grows both seedless and seeded varieties of the melons, but seedless are much more popular.

“I wish the seedless tasted as good as the seeded, but everyone wants no seeds,” Avila said.

Because of that, Avila plants eight times as many seedless watermelons as seeded. And he couldn’t stop growing seeded melons if he wanted. The seedless have to be pollinated by the seeded, so seedled plants take up only about 15 percent of the field.

“It’s getting harder to selling the seeded ones,” Avila said. “I wish the seeded ones tasted good.”Along with seedless and seeded, Avila has recently started growing personal-size watermelons, called the mini.

Because watermelons are grown all over the world, and are available throughout all the seasons, people can enjoy the melons anytime. In fact, in the United States, consumers eat about 17 pounds of melon apiece in one year, and growers put out more than 3.6 billion pounds of the popular fruit every year.

California is surpassed only by Georgia in growing the most watermelons. In Merced County, about 1,400 acres are dedicated to the melon, and the little green fruits were worth about $8,000,000 to the county in 2006. The San Joaquin Valley produces more than three-fourths of the melons grown in the state.

Almost everyone likes watermelons, and along with being tasty, the melons are good for you. According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, they are packed with vitamins A, B, and C and are high in potassium. Leslie Coleman, director of communications for the board, said there is one very important fact for people who are watching their weight.

“A watermelon is virtually fat free, and one cup has only 46 calories,” Coleman said.Although most people are used to seeing the red-fleshed melon, there is also a variety that has yellow flesh. “These (yellow) melons are more popular than ever,” Coleman said. “They are showing up in restaurants and ethnic markets.”

To make sure that watermelons in Merced County are ready to pick, the agricultural commissioner’s office in Merced is part of a standards program for the melons. Don Mayeda, the deputy ag commissioner in Merced, said that before the melons are picked, they are inspected.

“We make sure that the melons are mature enough to pick and that they are not damaged,” Mayeda said. Melons are ripe when they have a creamy yellow bottom, and a ripe melon feels heavier than an unripe one.

Although melons come with a hard outer shell, they can’t be picked by a machine. Instead, farmworkers must make sure that the melon is ready to pick. In the fields, the watermelons don’t all ripen at the same time, so it’s imperative that only the ripe ones are picked.

And what about that Viagra? It’s true, watermelons have an amino acid called citrulline. The acid relaxes blood vessels, much as Viagra does, according to researchers at the Texas A&M University in Texas. They are not sure how much a person needs to eat to get the benefits of the acid, but at least watermelon tastes better than a pill.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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