“Why is a watermelon red inside?”


Image Credit: Steve Evans

My daughter is a watermelon fiend. Given the option, she would eat nothing but watermelon at every meal. In the midst of a recent watermelon binge, my daughter paused long enough to spit out a question along with a black seed.

“Why are watermelons red inside, Mommyo?”

I didn’t know, so my daughter graciously granted me an iPhone exemption so that I could find out. (As you may remember, iPhones aren’t allowed at mealtimes.)

Turns out ripe watermelons get their red color from lycopene, the same stuff that makes tomatoes red and carrots orange.

And though strawberries and cherries are also red, lycopene isn’t to blame for that. Strawberries and cherries get their lush red hues from anthocyanins, which when mixed with the increasing sugar in the ripening strawberry and cherry fruits turns the fruit red. Interestingly, the same stuff mixes with sugar in the more alkaline blueberry to turn the berries a distinctive blue. (Sound familiar? It should. Anthocyanins are used to make everyone’s favorite chemistry tool — litmus paper.)

“Are watermelons always red, even the ones that aren’t ripe?”

No. Even though the lycopene that will turn the watermelon red is present in the fruit the entire time it is ripening, the insides of an unripe watermelon most likely won’t be red.

That’s because when the fruit is ripening, green chlorophyll masks the red color of the lycopene (or in the case of berries, the red/blue tones of anthocyanin) chemicals. When the growing season is over and the chlorophyll is no longer needed, the chlorophyll chemicals break up and disappear, allowing the colors of the other chemicals in the fruit (and leaves) of the plant to show through. (Yes, chlorophyll’s annual self-destruction is the same reason leaves turn from green to red, gold, and brown in the fall.)

“What else, Mommyo?”

Watermelons aren’t always red. I hear they can come in yellow, orange, and white as well, although I’ve personally never seen it.

About Shala Howell

Writer of things ranging from optical network switching white papers to genetic testing patient education materials to historical fiction set in an 1880s asylum. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), my writerly self can be found blogging about life with a very curious Eight-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, or musing about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.wordpress.com.
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5 Responses to “Why is a watermelon red inside?”

  1. What a nice blog you have! Really cute! :D
    By the way, I’ve tasted a yellow watermelon. As I recall, it’s flavor was very similar to a red melon, but was a bit milder and sweeter. Very delicious! :9

  2. Pingback: Mind-Control Zombie Parasites and Other News of the Week | CATERPICKLES

  3. Schmadeke says:

    Thanks for a great explanation. Would anyone happen to know what the lycopene reacts with inside the cell to create the red color?

    • Shala Howell says:

      As far as I can tell, the lycopene is itself red, due to its inherent cell structure. The more double carbon-carbon bonds inside a carotenoid like lycopene, the redder it is. As I understand it, in an unripe watermelon, the lycopene is always red, but its red color is masked by the more powerful chlorophyll green. As the chlorophyll fades, the lycopene red comes out. I’m no chemist, though. So if you want to dive into a more detailed explanation, I can merely point you to the “Properties” section of the Wikipedia page for Carotenoids: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carotenoid

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