If you had to pick one piece of produce that perfectly symbolized the fall in both flavor and color, the pumpkin would at least have to be in the conversation. If it isn’t being carved as a jack-o’-lantern or anchoring a centerpiece along with gourds and squashes, it’s probably being added to your coffee or pastry. The pumpkin is surely iconic in many ways, but it is also surprisingly full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that offer a wide variety of health benefits.
Overview of Pumpkins
The name “pumpkin” almost exclusively conjures an image of a big, round fruit with a bright orange color that we associate with Halloween and the fall more generally. In truth, however, the term can refer to any species of culinarily significant winter squash in the Cucurbita genus. The type we’re mostly likely to recognize, though, is Cucurbita pepo, a cultivar native to North America. The pumpkins we know and love so well are a unique type of crop in that an estimated 98% of them are grown for decorative purposes.
Pumpkins were first domesticated by Native American tribes around what is now Mexico and the southern United States. In fact, along with corn and beans, pumpkins and other squash represented the “three sisters,” which were the main staple crops of various indigenous cultures. Today pumpkins are grown all over the world in warmer climates, though the industry is dominated by China and India. In addition to the inner flesh, pumpkin seeds, leaves, and flowers can all be harvested and eaten.
Pumpkin Nutrition Facts
Even though most pumpkins are grown for decorative purposes, they remain a popular ingredient in everything from smoothies to baked goods to soups and stews. Apart from delivering the familiar flavor at the heart of favorites like pumpkin pie, the pumpkin fruit itself is actually quite nutritious and a good source of vitamins and minerals. One cup of fresh pumpkin has only 30 calories with 1 gram of protein, 8 grams of carbohydrates, and trace amounts of fat.
Vitamins (% Daily Value)
- vitamin A (53%)
- vitamin C (11%)
- vitamin E (3%)
- vitamin B6 (5%)
- folate (4%)
Minerals (% Daily Value)
- calcium (2%)
- phosphorus (6%)
- potassium (7%)
- manganese (6%)
- magnesium (3%)
While these nutritional facts are true for fresh pumpkin, it’s worth noting that most people don’t eat it raw and uncooked. Most of the time it is processed into pumpkin puree or powder and then incorporated into popular dishes or components like pumpkin pie filling. So unless you plan to use plain canned pumpkin or roasted pumpkin, an evaluation of the nutritional profile must take into account any added sugars or additional ingredients. A popular example from recent years is the pumpkin spice latte; yes, it has some pumpkin in it, but it also has plenty of calories and carbs as well.
What Are the Health Benefits of Pumpkin?
Given the nature of how Americans tend to consume pumpkin, exploring the potential health benefits can be tricky. Generally speaking, though, pumpkin as a basic ingredient contains many nutrients that are clearly associated with good health outcomes. If prepared in a healthy way, pumpkin can be part of a healthy diet and can be beneficial for several aspects of health:
- Heart health: The dietary fiber content of pumpkin makes it beneficial for heart health by reducing the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream. This contributes to an overall lower cholesterol level, which is important for avoiding the kind of plaque build up that greatly increases the risk of heart disease.
- Blood pressure: Pumpkin is also beneficial for reducing high blood pressure because of the relatively high potassium content. Potassium is important because it relaxes the walls of blood vessels; this lowers blood pressure and makes the circulatory system function more efficiently.
- Skin health: The vitamin C content of pumpkins is valuable for many reasons, including improved immune system function. Yet one of the other benefits of vitamin C is that it increases production of collagen, a key building block in our body’s effort to heal and maintain our skin.
- Eye health: The familiar orange color of pumpkins comes in part from a carotenoid pigment called beta-carotene (others are lutein and zeaxanthin). But in addition to providing pigment, beta-carotene is also believed to improve eye health by protecting the cornea and sharpening vision. It is also potentially helpful in lowering the risk of age-related macular degeneration.
- Weight management: Pumpkin, like essentially all fruits and vegetables, can be part of an overall healthy diet or a diet that is aimed at weight loss. Fruits like pumpkin are low in calories and have fiber and other compounds that make you feel fuller faster after eating.
- Chronic disease: Some of the pigments that give pumpkins their color are also known for having antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are important compounds that protect the body from damage done by free radicals, small particles that naturally result from biochemical reactions in the body. If unchecked, free radicals can create a state of oxidative stress that is believed to be a contributing factor to a number of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Ways to Use Pumpkin
Pumpkin will no doubt always be a go-to flavor every time the calendar rolls back around to autumn each year. This is partly because of the well-known love food manufacturers have for seasonal products, but it’s also because the mild, earthy sweetness can fit well with many different kinds of foods. Below are some examples of popular ways to use pumpkin as an ingredient:
- Baked goods: Beyond the perennial favorite pumpkin pie, pumpkin is also a great choice for muffins, pancakes, or cookies. The flavor of pumpkin also naturally pairs well with many spices like nutmeg and cinnamon that similarly tend to be associated with the fall.
- Smoothies: Pumpkin puree can be blended with yogurt, milk, spices, and a sweetener to make a nutritious and seasonal smoothie.
- Dog treats: Even our furry friends can take advantage of the season; fruits like pumpkin or butternut squash can be a healthy and appealing ingredient in pet treats. The combination of nutrients from pumpkin and fiber from whole grains is good for digestion.
- Soup: Pumpkin soup is a creamy and comforting dish that can be made with pumpkin puree, spices, and onions or other preferred vegetables.
- Snacks: Pumpkin powder or puree can be used as an ingredient in different kinds of snacks, but the seeds can also be useful. Once roasted and seasoned, pumpkin seeds can be a crunchy snack or a garnish for soup.
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