Pumpkins- Nutritional Powerhouses

Pumpkins- Nutritional Powerhouses

You know fall has arrived when you drive by the farm or grocery store and see carts and bins piled high with beautiful pumpkins!  If you one of those people that automatically thinks about carving a jack-o-lantern at that sight, you are missing out on all that pumpkins have to offer!  More than just a decoration, pumpkins are packed with flavor and are nutritional powerhouses!  Hopefully after this article, you will be running out to buy a pumpkin this afternoon.

Pumpkins, which are native to North America, are in the winter squash family, and have been commonly used in Mexican cooking for thousands of years.  Today, they are common globally in virtually all cuisines!  Pumpkins, differ in variety, size, shape, color, stem, etc, and not all are equally suitable for culinary purposes.  A good rule of thumb, is that the larger the pumpkin, the less tender and flavorful the meat.  So that state fair winning gigantic pumpkin, cool to look at, not so yummy :)  Stick to the sugar pumpkins.

Pumpkins are one of the most popular crops in the US- we produce 1.5 billion pounds a year!  The top producing states include Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Illinois (which produces 95% of the crop that is processed in the US, according the Illinois Department of Agriculture).

Although pumpkins are a hearty warm weather crop, they are found in most climates, including New England.  They are planted in July in fertile soil, require regular watering and can not withstand frost- should be picked just before the first frost.  Almost all parts of the pumpkin are edible including the shell, flesh, leaves, flowers and seeds!  When ripe, the pumpkin can be boiled, steamed, mashed, roasted, pureed, or a combination thereof.  Pumpkins that are still small and green may be eaten in the same way as squash or zucchini, which is most common in Asia and Southeast Asia.  Uncut pumpkins should be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 2 months.

An important note, when you purchase pre-packaged pumpkin puree or pumpkin pie mix, the can or pack may contain another winter squash such as butternut squash.  

Nutritional Value of Pumpkin

Pumpkin is a highly nutrient-dense food- it's rich in vitamins and minerals but low in calories, saturated fat, and very low in cholesterol and sodium, Pumpkin seeds, leaves, and juices all pack a powerful nutritional punch too.  For example:

  • Pumpkin has a range of fantastic health benefits, including being one of the best-known sources of beta-carotene.  
    • Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant. It also gives orange vegetables and fruits their vibrant color. The body converts any ingested beta-carotene into vitamin A.
    • Consuming foods rich in beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, offer protection against asthma and heart disease, and delay aging and body degeneration.
  • Pumpkin is a good source of Vitamin E, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Magnesium and Phosphorus, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Riboflavin, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.
  • Many studies have suggested that eating more plant foods such as pumpkin decreases the risk of obesity and overall mortality. It can also help prevent diabetes and heart disease, and promote a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and a healthful body mass index (BMI).  

Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are edible and nutrient-rich. They are about ½- inch long, flat, asymmetrically oval, light green in color and usually covered by a white husk. Pumpkin seeds are a popular snack that can be found hulled or semi-hulled at most grocery stores or can be saved from the pumpkin that you invariably will carve this October. Beyond being delicious, pepitas are a good source of protein, magnesium, copper and zinc.

Heart Health

Eating pumpkin is good for the heart. The fiber, potassium, and vitamin C content in pumpkin all support heart health.  Studies conducted by the NIH suggest that consuming enough potassium may be almost as important as decreasing sodium intake for the treatment of hypertension, or high blood pressure. Increased potassium intake is also associated with a reduced risk of stroke, protection against loss of muscle mass, and preservation of bone mineral density.

Nuts and seeds, including those of pumpkins, are naturally rich in certain plant-based chemicals called phytosterols that have been shown in studies to reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

Reduce Cancer Risk

Research published by the National Cancer institute states, that like their orange counterparts the sweet potato, the carrot and the butternut squash, pumpkins boast the antioxidant beta-carotene, which may play a role in cancer prevention,  According to the NIH, beta-carotene has also been shown to hinder the  development of colon cancer in some of the Japanese population.

Food sources of beta-carotene seem to help more than a supplement, according to the NIH — even more reason to scoop up some pumpkin today. And the plant sterols in pumpkin seeds have also been linked to fighting off certain cancers.

May Help Control Diabetes

The plant compounds in pumpkin seeds and pulp are excellent for helping the absorption of glucose into the tissues and intestines, as well as balancing levels of liver glucose.   They may be associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, but this effect is still being researched. However, the compounds have such an impact that researchers suggest that they could be reworked into an anti-diabetic medication, though further studies are needed

Aids in Weigh Loss and Supports Intestinal Function

Pumpkins are a fantastic, and often overlooked source of fiber.  People in the US do not consume enough fiber, with an average daily intake of just 15  grams, while the recommended daily fiber intake of is between 25 and 30 g.  Fiber slows the rate of sugar absorption into the blood, as well as promoting regular bowel movements and smooth digestion. A healthful fiber intake can also help reduce the risk of colon cancer.

With nearly 3 grams of fiber in cooked, fresh pumpkin and over 7 g in canned pumpkin, but only 49 calories, it can keep you feeling full for longer on fewer calories. and adding a serving of pumpkin to the daily diet can help supplement the fiber shortage in the average diet.

A fiber-rich diet seems to help people eat less, and thereby shed pounds. A 2009 study found that people who ate a whole apple before lunch (the fiber is in the skin) consumed fewer calories throughout the meal than people who ate applesauce or drank apple juice, WebMD reported.

Immune Health

Pumpkin pulp and seeds are high in both vitamin C and beta-carotene. These offer a boost to the immune system using a powerful combination of nutrients.  Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A. This triggers the creation of white blood cells that fight infection

Protect Your Eyesight & Skin

A cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin contains more than 200 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, which aids vision, particularly in dim light, according to the National Institutes of Health.  These same free-radical-neutralizing powers of the carotenoids in pumpkin that may keep cancer cells at bay and protect your eyesight, can also help keep the skin wrinkle-free, Health magazine reported.

Enhances Your Mood

Pumpkin seeds are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, the famed ingredient in turkey that many think brings on the need for that post-Thanksgiving feast snooze. While experts agree that it’s likely the overeating rather than the tryptophan that is lulling you to sleep, the amino acid is important in production of serotonin, one of the major players when it comes to our mood, WebMD reports. A handful of roasted pumpkin seeds may help your outlook stay bright.

Recover After a Hard Workout

Ever heard of bananas being touted as nature’s energy bar? Turns out, a cup of cooked pumpkin has more of the refueling nutrient potassium, with 564 milligrams to a banana’s 422
A little extra potassium helps restore the body’s balance of electrolytes after a heavy workout and keeps muscles functioning at their best.  So reach for that pumpkin smoothie instead!

Nutritional Breakdown 

According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one cup of cooked, boiled, or drained pumpkin without salt contains:

This amount of pumpkin also provides:

  • More than 200% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A
  • 19% of the RDA of vitamin C
  • 10% or more of the RDA of vitamin E, riboflavin, potassium, copper, and manganese
  • At least 5% of thiamin, B-6, folate, pantothenic acid, niacin, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus

Buying and Preparing Pumpkin

Preparing fresh pumpkin at home will deliver the most benefits for your health, but canned or tetra-packed pumpkin is also a great choice. Pumpkin retains many of its health benefits it the canning process.

Note, though, steer clear of canned pumpkin pie mix. This is usually placed next to the canned pumpkin in grocery stores, and is sold in a similar can. It contains added sugars and syrups as well as a slew of preservatives that are best to avoid.  Packaged pumpkin should have only one ingredient- pumpkin.

When selecting a fresh pumpkin, choose a smaller variety, which will be more tender, and make sure that the pumpkin has a few inches of stem left and is hard and heavy for its size. You can store uncut pumpkins in a cool, dark place for up to 2 months- just avoid freezing a whole pumpkin.  Prepared pumpkin, however, freezes well.

Here are some simple tips for including pumpkin in your diet:

  • Make your own pumpkin puree instead of buying canned.
  • Use pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin in place of oil or butter in any baking recipe.
  • Make a quick treat of pumpkin chocolate yogurt by combining Greek yogurt, pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin, honey, cinnamon, and cocoa powder.
  • Add pumpkin to your smoothie for rich flavor, creamy texture and a great shot of potassium.
  • Use pumpkin puree as a substitute for butter on your toast or cinnamon (whole wheat) bagel.
  • Try pumpkin bread, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin risotto, or even pumpkin beer.

The options are endless, and endlessly mouthwatering. It’s finally pumpkin season, and there are a million reasons to celebrate.  Enjoy!


Pumpkin Banana Power Smoothie

Pumpkin Banana Power Smoothie

Pumpkin Flan with Spiced Pepitas

Pumpkin Flan with Spiced Pepitas