Bitter Gourd: Health Benefits, Nutrition, and Uses

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on August 31, 2022
3 min read

Bitter gourd is a green-skinned vegetable with white to translucent flesh and a taste that fits its name. Unless you grew up with bitter gourd as part of your regular diet, it might take you a while to warm up to the bitter flavor.

Bitter gourd is also a vegetable of many names. It is equally known as bitter melon, bitter cucumber, balsam-pear, bitter apple, or bitter squash. This vegetable is also called karela in India, nigauri in Japan, goya in Okinawa, ampalaya in the Philippines, and ku-gua throughout China. 

Momordica charantia likely originated in eastern India or southern China. It favors hot and humid climates with plenty of sunshine and regular water access. Today, you can find bitter gourd growing in fields across Asia, though it has also become popular in the Caribbean and South America.

There are several varieties of bitter gourd, but the two most common are Chinese bitter gourd and Indian bitter gourd. The Chinese variety more closely resembles a pale green cucumber with crimped, bumpy skin. The Indian variety has narrow, tapered ends and sharp, angled ridges all over its surface. The differences between these varieties are mostly visual, and both offer similar flavor and health benefits.

As a rich source of antioxidants, flavonoids, and other polyphenol compounds, bitter gourd may help to reduce your risks for a number of health issues.

Fights inflammation

Bitter gourd is packed with polyphenols. These compounds are known for their ability to lower inflammation in the body. The more of them there are, the greater the anti-inflammatory effects could be.

Diabetes management

Bitter gourd contains bioactive compounds called saponins and terpenoids. These compounds are responsible for the vegetable’s bitter taste, but may also play a role in lowering blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. The saponins and terpenoids in bitter gourd may help move glucose from the blood to the cells while also helping your liver and muscles better process and store glucose.

One fresh bitter gourd contains:

  • Calories: 21
  • Protein: 1 gram
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 5 grams
  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: 6 milligrams

Bitter gourd is rich in a number of important antioxidants as well. In fact, half a cup of fresh bitter gourd accounts for about 43% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C. The younger the fruit, the more vitamin C it contains.

Raw bitter gourd contains a variety of vitamins and minerals:

You can find bitter gourd in many Asian and Indian grocery stores and markets, typically from June through November.

Bitter gourds are harvested when immature, which is why they appear green to green-yellow in produce aisles. They turn a pale orange when fully mature, but they also lose much of their nutritional value at this point.

This vegetable has a range of culinary uses. You can steam, boil, stir-fry, braise, pickle, stuff, or curry bitter gourd for a variety of nutritious and delicious dishes.

Here are a few bitter gourd recipes to try:

  • Enjoy a bitter gourd and pork stir-fry.
  • Create a fresh salad with mango, tomato, and grilled bitter gourd.
  • Stuff bitter gourd with minced pork, vermicelli noodles, and spices, then cook in a broth.
  • Cook bitter gourd with shrimp in coconut milk and spices.
  • Create a healthy green drink with pureed bitter gourd, lemon, and honey. Strain or enjoy as a smoothie.