LANE, Okla. – Watermelon. It isn’t just a fun treat anymore.

“Folks used to think that watermelon had no nutritional value,” says Sam Pair, research leader at the Lane Ag Center, a joint USDA-ARS and Oklahoma State University research and education facility near Lane, Okla.

But recent research indicates watermelon contains disease-fighting lycopene, in amounts similar to tomatoes.

“It’s the red pigment,” says Penny Perkins-Veazie, a USDA post-harvest physiologist stationed at the Lane Center. “It’s an important finding,” she said.

Some consumers may find watermelon more to their liking than tomatoes and they get the lycopene benefit in the raw product. “Tomatoes have to be processed to fully access the lycopene," Perkins-Veazie says.

A consumer would need to eat about two cups of watermelon a day to get the maximum benefit. That compares with 11 to 12 grams of lycopene in a can of tomato juice.

“Now, with ready-to-eat packages, watermelon is available year-round.”

She says new varieties also make the sweet melons more attractive to consumers. “New mini-melons, slightly bigger than a softball, add convenience,” she said. “These could be good for patio gardens and also for commercial growers. Consumers will find them easy to take home and store.”

Three seed companies, Seminis, Syngenta and Hazera, have mini-melon varieties available.

Perkins-Veazie says the discovery that watermelon has a heightened level of lycopene has increased sales, especially of melons in the 15-pound range.

“With demand for smaller melons, we’ve seen acreage decrease but an increases in pounds produced per acre,” she says.

Perkins-Veazie says lycopene has been shown to decrease risk for certain cancers and says watermelons also may promote cardiovascular health. Some evidence suggests that the lycopene can prevent cholesterol from clogging arteries and may increase HDL, the good cholesterol. The HDL work was done using tomatoes, Perkins-Veazie says. “Perhaps watermelon can also play a role in lowering blood pressure.”

In addition to watermelons, Perkins-Veazie also works with berries.

“Blueberries are probably the most researched berry, followed by raspberries,” she says. “Little has been done on blackberries.”

She says berries provide health benefits either raw or cooked.

Genetics, she says, plays an important role in nutritional value of melons and berries. She’s working with scientists in Beltsville, Md., and Oxford, Miss., to quantify the nutritional benefits of watermelons and berries.

The research is important to the Lane Center and to the Southeast corner of Oklahoma, as well as areas deep into Texas, says Sam Pair, USDA research leader. “We grow about 12,000 acres of watermelons annually in Oklahoma and with Texas acreage, the number tops 100,000.

He says farmers in southeast Oklahoma historically have depended on beef cattle. “But they need to diversify and watermelons offer a good opportunity. Peanuts have been gradually phased out so we try to determine what will grow here.”

Watermelon seems like a good fit. “It’s a high value crop and can be very successful in this area. Farmers can use existing equipment to get started.”

He says the center also works with other fruit and vegetable crops. “If we determine enough grower interest exists, we’ll get involved in research for a specific crop. We also work with researchers at the Stephenville, Texas, station. ”

In addition to post harvest physiology, researchers also look into the economics of crop production, disease control, weed management and pest control tactics.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com