I was inspired to write this post after a few comments I got following my previous post where I added ground Egusi to my smoothie. I had people ask me if Egusi was healthy because it had high cholesterol, a few people actually told me they had stopped eating Egusi because of its high cholesterol content. At first, I found the notion quite strange because no where had I heard or read that a plant-based food was high in cholesterol. But then I thought cholesterol is needed in the production of bile which is needed for the digestion of fats, so if a seed contained both the fat and the means of digesting it, then surely it was a perfect seed.
This however led to me research further and I think before we answer the question of whether or not Egusi has high cholesterol it is important to lay the proper foundation by explaining what cholesterol is and what it is not.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like (it’s not fat) substance that is found in all the cells of the body, in fact we could not survive without cholesterol. They form a vital part of the cell membrane and are essential for the production of hormones (Estrogen, Testosterone, Progesterone, Cortisol and Aldosterone), Vitamin D, Bile and Brain synapses.
Cholesterol is so important that the body hasn’t left us to decide how much of it gets; the body produces all the cholesterol it needs using anything – carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. This is why eating a diet that is totally cholesterol free doesn’t guarantee you won’t have high blood cholesterol as we will see later.
What foods contain cholesterol?
Cholesterol found in food is often referred to as dietary cholesterol and will typically be found in animal based foods because all animal cells contain cholesterol. Foods such as beef, chicken, eggs, liver, milk, butter etc will have some cholesterol though some will have more than others. That said dietary cholesterol has been shown to have less of an impact on blood cholesterol levels when compared to the effect saturated fat consumption has on blood cholesterol levels. The reason being the interesting relationship that exists between cholesterol and fat.
Bile which is essential for the digestion of fats is produced in the liver using cholesterol. Therefore if we eat a diet high in saturated fats, the body naturally will produce higher amounts of cholesterol and if for some reason the body is unable to turn this cholesterol into bile and/or other hormones this leads to high cholesterol being found in the blood. This is why those with high blood cholesterol are often advised to reduce their consumption of saturated fats.
What Cholesterol is not
Cholesterol is not fat, it is similar to fat in that it contains the same compounds hydrogen, carbon and oxygen but it is not fatty.
Without being scientific I’m sure you can appreciate that the two are very different. Whilst fat consist of a simple long chain, cholesterol is more of a complex combination of hexagon and pentagon rings. A testament to the complex beauty that the human body is capable of producing.
Does Egusi have cholesterol?
Given that cholesterol is found mainly in animals, all plants are technically cholesterol free though they do contain the plant form of cholesterol known as phytosterols, the richest source of which is vegetable oils from seeds such as the Egusi seed. Hence in answer to the question, Egusi does not contain cholesterol but it does contain phytosterols which the body doesn’t assimilate very well, in fact the major part of assimilated phytosterols is directly eliminated via the liver and the biliary system so that, in the end in healthy individuals, less than 1% is retained¹.
Phytosterols have however been shown in many clinical trials to reduce LDL cholesterol, though it is unclear whether phytosterols have a positive effect on cardiovascular disease¹. One such research titled Fatty Acid Composition of Citrullus Lanatus (Egusi Melon) Oil and Its Effect on Serum Lipids and Some Serum Enzymes was carried out in a lab using rats divided into two groups, one group was fed a diet containing 5% cholesterol while the others were fed a diet with 5% cholesterol and 5% Egusi melon oil. At the end of the period, the rats fed with “Egusi melon oil with a rich content of polyunsaturated fatty acid was found to produce a significant reduction (p<0.05) in serum total, free and esterified cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations”².
Now you will notice that this post is about Egusi seed in its natural state and not Egusi soup.While eating Egusi will not increase blood cholesterol levels, I cannot say the same if the Egusi soup is doused with an overload of palm oil and fatty-meat is eaten with reckless abandon. (lol)
The purpose of this article is not to prescribe Egusi as a means of reducing blood cholesterol. The information is for educational use and simply aimed at doing away with the myth surrounding Egusi and cholesterol. If you do have health concerns relating to blood cholesterol this might be due to a number of factors which are beyond the scope of this post, please do consult your health care practitioner.
In my next post I will be sharing an Egusi soup recipe for your pleasure so watch this space. 🙂
I do hope you have found this post useful and that you will now be able to enjoy your Egusi soup in 2015 without fear of cholesterol.
References Weingärtner O, Böhm M, Laufs U. Controversial role of plant sterol esters in the management of hypercholesterolaemia. European Heart Journal2009;30(4):404-409. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehn580. O Oluba, O Adeyemi, G Ojieh, I Isiosio. Fatty Acid Composition Of Citrullus Lanatus (Egusi Melon) Oil And Its Effect On Serum Lipids And Some Serum Enzymes. The Internet Journal of Cardiovascular Research. 2007 Volume 5 Number 2.