What are the Medical Uses of Balsam Pear?

Emma G.

Balsam pear is a traditional ingredient in Asian medicine and cuisine. Its most basic use is to help with gastrointestinal issues. In the United States, studies have shown that it can help people who are coping with diabetes. Extracts of the fruit also might help prevent and treat cancer and malaria.

Balsam pear may also be referred to as bitter gourd or bitter melon.
Balsam pear may also be referred to as bitter gourd or bitter melon.

Colloquially known as bitter gourd or bitter melon, the fruit grows all over Asia and in parts of South America. It grows on a tropical vine with yellow flowers. When immature, the fruit looks like a wart-covered cucumber. As it matures, it turns orange and becomes more bitter. When very ripe, the fruit actually is too bitter to eat.

Balsam pear grows all over Asia.
Balsam pear grows all over Asia.

Throughout Asia, the immature balsam pear is used in food. Sometimes it is eaten as a culinary compliment. Other times, it is eaten just for its purported health benefits.

Balsam pear may help prevent malaria.
Balsam pear may help prevent malaria.

The fruit's bitterness makes it able to be used to stimulate digestion. In general, bitter foods help with bad digestion and constipation by jump-starting the digestive process. The increased digestive activity often causes worsening of ulcers and heartburn. Balsam pear is particularly soothing, so it rarely aggravates these conditions.

Balsam pear may improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics.
Balsam pear may improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics.

In some parts of South America, the leaves of the plant are brewed into tea. The tea leaves are then strained out so only the liquid remains. This tea is used to treat diabetes and malaria.

Studies in the U.S. have shown that balsam pear contains a sugar binding protein called a lectin. Lectins act like insulin to remove sugar from the bloodstream. Presence of this lectin makes the fruit useful for treating adult-onset diabetes, also known as Type II diabetes.

Some Asian and South American medicine traditions hold this melon can help prevent malaria. Scientific studies in the U.S. have found compounds in the fruit that might affect malaria. More study is needed to determine the full benefits.

Other studies have found that balsam pear might inhibit cancer cell growth. It might even help to kill existing cancer cells. Extracts might be useful as a cancer preventative or even as a treatment for existing cancers.

The balsam pear has few side effects, but it should be used only with the guidance of a medical professional. The most common side effect is gastrointestinal discomfort. It should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing, because some compounds in the fruit might be harmful to infants. Large doses also might be harmful to young children.

Side effects of balsam pear may include heartburn.
Side effects of balsam pear may include heartburn.

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Discussion Comments


My 80+ year old neighbor from the West Indies picks the leaves and boils them down to help with itching and he ate the red seeds right in front of me to show me it wasn't harmful. I always see him out picking different kinds of plants around the neighborhood. This is all in Southwest Fla.


@Mor: I use bitter melon a lot in my cooking, especially in the summer, as it has chemicals that cool the body down internally.

The bitter taste does take some getting used to, but I do have a secret to making it a little less bitter. You just cut the gourd lengthwise and rub some salt onto the "meat" of the gourd and leave it as is for about five minutes and rinse it off. Leaving the salt on any longer takes away a lot of its nutritional benefits.


My Irish grandmother grew balsam pears in a bottle. She filled the bottle with whiskey and used the liquid as a rub on for bug bites, cuts and scrapes, and also as a tonic in small doses!


@Mor - It is very popular in many Asian dishes, so you might want to try one of those in order to see whether you like it or not.

Try a dish in which the bitter melon is heavily smothered in sauces and served with lots of other flavored, such as in a stir fry.

If you can stand it, or maybe even like it a little bit, you can buy it yourself to prepare.

Bitter foods are often an acquired taste, but plenty of people would not do without them, and with the added health benefits, you can't go wrong.


I have seen piles of bitter melon at our local fruit and vegetable market, but I had no idea it was considered such a medical powerhouse.

It's a shame that medicinal foods always have to taste bitter. The bitter melon is supposed to be the most bitter of any fruit and I already think grapefruit is disgustingly bitter, so I'm afraid to try bitter melon. It's a shame though, because if it soaks up blood sugar it might help stop me getting so hungry when my blood sugar levels over react.

I wonder if there is a way to disguise the taste, but still get the weight control benefits?

It is a very funny looking fruit, if you've ever seen it.

It looks like it is covered in toad skin.

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