Squash Is Bitter Tasting: Reasons For Bitter Squash Taste

Squash, especially zucchini, is a popular garden veggie loved by many. But have you ever had squash that is bitter tasting and, if so, is bitter squash edible? This article will help with that as well as what causes bitter squash. I just planted six zucchini plants and I am well aware that I will be giving it away to strangers on the street, just to use it all. Hopefully, with my tender loving care, I won’t end up with squash that tastes bad. Read on to find out what causes bitter squash.

My Squash is Bitter Tasting

Actually, a bitter squash taste is a common problem found in zucchini as well as in cucumber. Both of these veggies are members of the Cucurbit family along with gourds, melons, pumpkins and other types of squash. Cucurbits contain a group of chemicals called cucubitacins. It is these cucurbitacins that are responsible for squash that is bitter tasting. The higher the levels of cucubitacin, the more bitter the squash will taste.

The most likely cause for a bitter taste in squash is due to an environmental stress of some sort, most likely a wide temperature flux or irregular irrigation. Either of these will create an excess of cucurbitacins to concentrate in the fruit. Extreme cold, heat, drought or too much irrigation or even a lack of plant nutrients, excessive pest infestation or disease can all create these elevated levels of cucurbitacin in the squash resulting in a bitter flavor.

One other possible reason that your squash is bitter involves genetics and is especially true with regards to summer squash. Squash, as well as cucumber relatives, are basically weeds and easily cross pollinate with our garden domestic varieties. Saving seed can increase the likelihood of a potential cross pollination and resulting bitter flavor. It can also occur with purchased seed that may have been cross pollinated with wild cucurbits. Obviously, there would be no benefit to trying to solve a stressor to resolve the problem, as the bitterness is bred into the plant.

In wild cucurbits, the bitterness is a blessing. Many insects find the bitter flavor as repellent as we do and are, thus, less likely to snack on the plant.

Is Bitter Squash Edible?

If you can accurately identify the stress and correct it, you may be able to salvage the harvest. However, if the squash tastes bad and is extremely bitter already, you may want to pull it out and discard it, starting over the following year.

As to the edibility of bitter squash, eating them won’t likely kill you, although if the levels of cucurbitacin are really high, you may wish you were. Very bitter squash with a high level of this compound will cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea which can last for several days. Only in extreme or rare cases has this led to death. It is fairly likely that you would not even entertain the notion of ingesting very bitter squash simply because of the nasty flavor. That said, to err on the side of caution, it may be best to simply toss out any extremely bitter tasting fruits.

You may, however, decide you want to use mildly bitter squash, which is okay. It helps to know that the bitter compound is more concentrated in the stem rather than in the blossom end of the squash. To reduce the bitter flavor, peel the squash, beginning at the blossom end, and discard a couple of inches of it at the stem end.

Why are Cucumbers Bitter?

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

It's the rare gardener who hasn't experienced growing a bitter cucumber.   Few things are as frustrating as tending your vegetables all season long, only to finally harvest them and find out they don't taste very good when you get them to the table. Cucumbers are known for being prolific, sometimes to the extreme. But what good is a bounty of cucumbers if they aren't tasty?

Unfortunately, you can't tell if a cucumber is becoming bitter while it is still growing and you have time to do something about it. Usually, the bitterness is caused by some climate or soil condition that could be easily solved.   That's why it is so important to take preemptive steps to keep them from becoming bitter in the first place.

When I cook zucchuni I slightly scrape the skin with help of a knife to reduce the bitterness.

Also for some meals prepared by mashing, I peel the skin off.

Mild bitterness in zucchini, like that found in cucumber, may be result from environmental factors such as high temperature, low moisture, low soil nutrients, etc. The bitterness is caused by compounds called cucurbitacins. There is also a rare condition which can cause extreme bitterness in zucchini. A compound called Cucurbitacin E is found in wild species of squash, but is extremely rare in cultivated species. (Univ. of Arizona)

Having bounced around to the various other sites I basically had what I've heard anecdotally before confirmed salt and lay out to drain liquid. I suppose the implication is that by dessicating the zuke a little bit, it can remove the Cucurbitacin (which is a steroid developed to ward off herbivores). Putting the zukes in salt water is also recommended by some.

It appears that people can become ill from incredibly bitter zukes, so be wary of eating extremely bitter ones. In this case, you may want to follow the wisdom of your taste buds and drop the zucchini in the trash.

Toxic squash syndrome

Although it's rare, other cases of cucurbit poisoning have been described in the medical literature in those cases, people developed food poisoning after eating bitter-tasting squash, zucchini and other gourds, according to the new report. But these are the first two reported cases linking the consumption of bitter-tasting gourds with hair loss, according to the case report author, Dr. Philippe Assouly, a dermatologist at Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris. [7 Foods You Can Overdose On]

Assouly wrote that he suspects that toxic compounds in the plant have a similar effect on hair follicles as do some chemotherapy drugs, which can lead to temporary hair loss.

But because hair loss is a completely new observation that is potentially associated with exposure to cucurbitacins, it's not clear why it occurred in these cases, said Dr. Zane Horowitz, a toxicologist and medical director of the Oregon Poison Center in Portland, who was not involved in the case. Cucurbit poisoning is a very rare syndrome, and the toxin involved has not been well-studied, Horowitz noted.

In 2012, emergency room physicians at Oregon Health & Science University saw two patients with toxic squash syndrome, both of whom had eaten squash from a home garden. The physicians then reviewed the records from the Oregon and Washington state poison centers and identified about 17 other cases of cucurbit poisoning that had occurred over a 12-year period.

In a more recent review, published in January 2018 in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology, a French poison center reported more than 350 cases of food poisoning linked with bitter-tasting squash that took place between 2012 and 2016. About 56 percent of those cases involved squash purchased at a store, and in 26 percent of the cases, the vegetable came from a home garden, according to the findings.

Squash lovers need to be aware that if they eat one of these popular vegetables and it tastes bitter, they should stop eating it immediately, Horowitz told Live Science. What's clear in all these case reports is that high levels of the toxin make vegetables taste bitter, and those high levels of toxin can put a person at highest risk for symptoms, he said.

As for the two French women who lost their hair, the hair on the head of the woman who ate the pumpkin soup had regrown less than 1 inch (2 centimeters) two months after the incident. The second woman had regrown short hair, of more than 2 inches (6 cm), on most areas of her scalp six months later.

Poisonous courgette warning

If you’re thinking of planting courgettes this spring, and I’m sure many of us are, then have a read of my cautionary tale – though don’t let it put you off, I think it’s quite a rare occurrence judging from the doctors’ reaction.

I had been baffled by several of my meals being ruined by an awful, bitter taste – so bitter that a tiny bit left an awful taste in my mouth for quite some time afterwards. I wondered if the oil was rancid, I wondered what ingredient could possibly taste so awful.

Then finally, the culprit was revealed – the last ingredient was grated courgettes, and the dish went from lovely to appallingly bitter.

Loathe to throw out a big pan of food, I tried to eat around the courgettes and pick out the broad beans, but I had to admit, it tasted bitter beyond anything I wanted to eat, and eventually gave up. My partner refused to touch it.

I woke up around 3am with stomach cramps, diarrhoea, the same bitter taste in my mouth, and a pounding heart. I was quite worried, and my partner said I should look at the research he had done on bitter courgettes – it turns out they can contain a poison called Cucurbitacin E, which can develop if the plant is hybridised and/or water-stressed. What the research did not reveal though was how serious this was and what the consequences were.

I rang NHS Direct and told her I had poisoned myself with a courgette she quite clearly thought I was barking, and asked if it was mouldy. I gave up, and rang the out-of-hours doctor and told him my symptoms matched everything for Cucurbitacin E poisoning, and was I going to die from this? He said he’d never heard of it and I’d better go to A and E.

I waited in A and E for several hours, feeling terrible, and eventually saw a doctor who thankfully took me seriously and went to look up this poison. He said I should be fine but should get some tests run in a week or so. I felt pretty ropey for the next few days but the tests were fine and I’m still here to tell the tale. There is a story of someone who died from this poison, though.

Who would have though it of an innocent-looking, usually quite bland courgette?

Yes, Toxic Squash Syndrome Is a Thing

A new medical report discusses the rare condition after two women in France contracted the sickness. Here's what you need to know.

You might roll your eyes and dismiss it outright if you've never heard of it, but a published report in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology shows that "toxic squash syndrome"—also known as cucurbit poisoning—could be a concern for home cooks.

The report highlights two separate cases involving women in France, who became sick after eating bitter-tasting squash.

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Both women became extremely ill immediately following their meals, and were later diagnosed with the the syndrome. Both women also lost nearly all of their hair, which is an unfortunate side effect.

The bitterness is a sign that the squash in question contain high levels of chemical compounds known as cucurbitacins. The compounds occur naturally in wild squash plants and act as defense against herbivores—they do not typically exist in cultivated squash, except when accidental cross-pollination occurs according to Newsweek. If your squash, cucumber, melon, or zucchini tastes alarmingly bitter, it's a telling sign that it might not be safe to eat.

Bustle did a deep dive into why toxic squash syndrome is so dangerous (even deadly) for home cooks—their report highlights a 2010 case where a man nearly died after drinking freshly squeezed gourd juice.

According to Dr. Shravan Bohra, gastroenterologist at Ahmedabad Apollo Hospital in India who treated the man, the toxins in the cucurbitacin-loaded gourd juice caused swelling in the liver, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreas.

In 2015, a German man died after eating a zucchini packed with the deadly toxin, as reported by The Daily Meal.

It there's one thing that's clear, it's that you should probably avoid eating extremely bitter squash or cucumbers.

And don't brush the possibility of getting sick aside: a CBS report included data from squash poisoning within the United States over the last year, and there have been more than 17 cases over the last 12 years.

How to Grow Cucumbers That Are Not Bitter Tasting

To avoid bitter flavored cucumbers, plant varieties that have very low levels of cucurbitacins or give cucumbers optimal growing conditions.

Cucumbers plants that are stressed during the growing season may produce fruit that is bitter flavored. Commonly a lack of water or temperatures too cold or too hot cause cucumbers to bear bitter tasting fruit.

But some cucumbers may have a slightly bitter flavor by nature. Cucumbers contain organic compounds called cucurbitacins that can cause fruit to taste bitter. Low levels of cucurbitacins are not detectable, but high levels make fruits taste bitter. Cucurbitacin levels may increase with environmental stress during the growing season.

Tips to Avoid Bitter Tasting Cucumbers:

To avoid bitter flavored cucumbers, plant varieties that have very low levels of cucurbitacins or give cucumbers optimal growing conditions. Here are suggestions for optimal cucumber growing and also a list of cucumbers that are usually not bitter tasting:

Site. Plant cucumbers in a sunny spot in soil rich in organic matter and well drained. Raised beds or mounds are ideal for growing cucumbers the soil will warm early in the season and stay warm. Work several inches of aged compost and aged manure into the planting beds ahead of sowing or transplanting. During the season, sidedress plant with aged compost. Compost is nutrient rich and moisture retentive.

Give cucumbers plenty of room to grow trellised or caged cumbers should be spaced 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) apart. Space hills for growing cucumbers at least 3 feet (91 cm) apart.

Cucumber Planting. Sow seed or set out cucumber transplants after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 60°F (16°C). Frost can stress cucumbers. If there is a danger of frost once cucumbers are in the garden, protect plants with floating row covers.

Water. Give cucumbers plenty of water do not let the soil go dry especially while they are flowering and fruiting. Water stress during the early stages of growth will cause bitter-tasting compounds to concentrate in the fruit. Water cucumbers deeply once or twice a week or place plants on a drip so that the soil stays moist but not wet. Use your finger to measure soil moisture the soil should not be dry deeper than 3 inches below the surface.

Mulch. Once the soil has reached 70°F (21°C), reduce soil moisture evaporation by mulching plants with an organic mulch or black plastic. Mulch will also reduce weeds which compete for soil moisture and nutrients.

Protect cucumbers from high temperatures. Temperatures consistently in the mid-90s or warmer can stress cucumbers. Provide filtered afternoon shade to help cool the garden plant cucumbers to the south of tall crops such as corn or sunchokes or place a frame and shade cloth with a 40 to 50 percent block of sunlight over cucumbers.

Cucumber Harvest. Pick cucumbers at their optimum size and pick them frequently. Cucumbers should be ready for picking 50 to 70 days after planting. When the cucumber drops its flower at the blossom end of the fruit, the fruit is ready for harvest. Cucumbers are less tasty when they grow too big.

Know the mature size of the cucumbers you are growing: about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) for American slicers, 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) for Middle Eastern types, 3 to 5 (7-13 cm) inches for pickling types 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) for Asian varieties.

Serving. Bitterness concentrates in the stem end and skin of the cucumber. Peel the fruit and cut off the stem end by an inch or two to reduce bitterness at serving time. Rinse your peeling knife after each slice so that you do not spread the bitter taste.

Cucumber varieties. Choose cucumber varieties that are not bitter flavored. The level of curcurbitacins in cucumbers varies by variety but also from plant to plant and even fruit to fruit on the same plant. (An enzyme called elaterase also present in cucumbers can reduce the amount of cucurbitacins but the amount of elaterase can vary from season to season and plant to plant as well.)

Cucumber varieties with low levels of cucurbitacins include Jazzer, Holland, Lemon, Aria, and Marketmore 97. Keep a garden journal and note varieties you have grown that were not bitter tasting.

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