The pumpkin, along with its winter squash cousins butternut, acorn, and spaghetti, among others, is a delicious way to get a healthy helping of essential nutrients. The bright orange hue of this fall favorite reveals high concentrations of carotenoids, the most well-known of which is beta-carotene.
Carotenoids are a group of compounds that give some plants their deep yellow, red, or orange hues. Some carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, can be used by your body to make vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for normal cell growth and development, particularly in the eye and the immune system. Other carotenoids cannot be used to make vitamin A but are being studied for their antioxidant properties.
Current research is investigating the potential role of carotenoids in human health. In cell studies and observational studies, the carotenoid family shows promising antioxidant and anti-cancer activity, and higher ingestion may correlate with a lower risk of cancer development.
While this emerging research is exciting for its future potential, we cannot use these preliminary results and observations to make any recommendations at this time. Instead, we can use this as encouragement to include carotenoid-rich foods, such as pumpkins, into a well-balanced diet.
Pumpkins also provide potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. Potassium concentrations are tightly regulated in the body to support normal physiological function and maintain proper fluid balance. Vitamin C not only supports our immune system by aiding in the neutralization of dangerous free radicals in our bodies, but also plays supporting roles in gene expression, structural functions, and cell signaling. Fiber is essential to maintaining a healthy digestive tract, which allows you to absorb all of the important nutrients in your food and helps to support a healthy and robust immune system.
And save those pumpkin seeds. Pumpkin seeds are mini nutritional powerhouses that contain healthy unsaturated fats, as well as zinc, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Zinc supports many regulatory and enzymatic functions in the body, including your immune function. Magnesium is necessary for energy production, DNA synthesis, and additionally plays many structural roles in the body. Iron supports a robust blood supply that can carry essential nutrients and oxygen to all your body’s tissues.
Pumpkins can grow to be over 75 lbs., but save those giant ones for the Jack O’ Lantern contest because smaller ones are better for eating. Look for a pumpkin that feels heavy for its size and still has its stem attached. The outside should be hard and sound hollow when you give it a knock.
Pumpkins can be stored at room temperature for about a month and in the refrigerator for up to three months. Canned pumpkin (not “pumpkin pie” mix) is also a great alternative if dealing with the squash itself feels overwhelming. To cook fresh pumpkin, carefully cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds and stringy insides with a spoon. Cut into smaller pieces and remove the flesh from the hard rind.
Pumpkin seeds are best if gathered from a fresh pumpkin (see recipe tips) because pre-packaged pumpkin seeds that are roasted and salted can be high in sodium. If purchasing pumpkin seeds from the grocery store, be sure to look for raw and unsalted seeds. To roast your own pumpkin seeds, extract them from the pumpkin, and wipe them off to remove the strings and pulp; it’s best to let them dry out overnight. Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and let them roast on low heat about 160-170 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. Use them on top of salads, sautéed vegetables, or toss them with breakfast cereal and granolas for added nutritional benefits.
Puréed canned pumpkin makes incorporating the squash into your diet incredibly easy, but many supermarkets now sell ready cubed fresh pumpkin and butternut squash as well. Use butternut squash as a seamless substitute if a decent pumpkin isn’t available.
Pumpkin can be the main ingredient in soups, pies, bread, muffins, or pancakes. Try our Fennel-Scented Squash Soup or our Pumpkin Miso Soup. Pumpkin is also a great soft food if swallowing becomes difficult after chemotherapy treatments. Try our Pumpkin Pie Custard, or simply combine pureed pumpkin with seasoning for taste, or mix it with yogurt and honey for a sweet treat. Pureed pumpkin is also a great addition to smoothies to add in some additional vitamins and phytonutrients.