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Ugly Watermelons Get a Second Life

Today is one of those odd unofficial holidays that I never noticed until I became a food blogger: National Watermelon Day. (Picked up this fact from Foodimentary via Twitter.)Which makes a convenient excuse to keep pigging out on the luscious melon I bought this weekend at a local farm stand. It's ...

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Today is one of those odd unofficial holidays that I never noticed until I became a food blogger: National Watermelon Day. (Picked up this fact from Foodimentary via Twitter.)

Courtesy National Watermelon Promotion Board

Which makes a convenient excuse to keep pigging out on the luscious melon I bought this weekend at a local farm stand. It's easy to eat a lot in one sitting because, as the name suggests, watermelon is 92 percent water. (The rest is mostly sugar.)

But apparently I'll have to work harder to keep up with the Joneses: According to the USDA, Americans annually consume 15 pounds of watermelon per capita.

U.S. farmers grow nearly four billion pounds of watermelons each year, but about 20 percent are considered too cosmetically challenged to graduate to supermarket shelves. They usually end up as fertilizer, not even leaving the fields.

Recently, scientists announced good news for those ugly watermelons: They can become ethanol. (Pretty ones can too, of course, but they have other career options.)

In fact, they can be doubly useful, since watermelons are also a key source of lycopene, an antioxidant that can be extracted from misfit melons for use in nutritional supplements.

Fermenting the sugars in watermelon waste could produce several million gallons of ethanol a year, although that's not quite as simple as it sounds. Most watermelon farmers don't happen to own an ethanol factory, so there are transportation costs to consider in getting their fruit to existing ethanol factories, which typically process corn. Those factories would need to adapt to process melons instead---but since it would only be for a few months each year, they may see no economic incentive to do that.

Still, ethanol producers are "cautiously optimistic" about the idea of exploiting a waste product rather than diverting a crop from the nation's food supply. Citrus peels and other fruit by-products have potential, too.

So, happy National Watermelon Day! I'll leave you with a link to a video of the world's largest watermelon being harvested. (Warning: Don't watch if you're sensitive to violence against fruit. The melon meets a tragic end about a minute and a half into this clip.)
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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