Cucurbitacins in plant food

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Poisoning due to Cucurbitaceous vegetables seems to be linked to intake of immensely bitter vegetables. The bitter and toxic compounds in these vegetables are cucurbitacins, which are well known in wild varieties of these food plants and their related species. The cultivated forms, on the other hand, have during cultivation been selected for being free of the bitter and toxic compounds. Occasionally, cultivars of cucurbitaceous food plants (e.g. squash) back-mutate and regain the ability to produce toxic amounts of cucurbitacins. This review summarises the information available on cucurbitacins in food plants of the family Cucurbitaceae, with the aim to lay down background information required to evaluate the potential risk of being intoxicated by cucurbitacins as a part of the safety assessment of cucurbitaceous food plants, and especially in relation to genetically modified Cucurbitaceous plants.




Cucurbitacins are found in many cucurbitaceous plants – they have been demonstrated in some 100 of the about 900 species belonging to this family. They are most common in species of the Bryonia, Cucumis (cucumber, melons), Cucurbita (squash, pumpkin), Luffa (angled gourd), Coccinia, Echinocystis, Lagenaria (bottle gourd) and Citrullus (watermelon, colocynth) genera, and in the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium. The cucurbitacins are responsible for the bitter taste of these plants (Teuscher and Lindequist, 1994). Plants of the genera Momordica contain a special group of cucurbitacins called momordicosides (see Figure 3). The most important species of this plant genus is the bitter gourd, Momordica charantia, also called bitter cucumber or balsam pear.


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