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a pumpkin sliced open

When we think of fall produce, pumpkin is often one of the first to come to mind. Dishes like roasted pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie are tried-and-true favorites, but options abound, ranging from a simple roasted pumpkin to pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pie energy bites, and pumpkin hummus. Being able to enjoy this decadent, earthy food makes the prospect of winter more bearable.

Pumpkin is a type of squash in the Cucurbita family, which also includes foods like winter squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. It was originally discovered 10,000 years ago in Guatemala and Mexico, and was harvested for its seeds. At that time, the flesh of pumpkin was bitter and unpalatable. Over the past several thousand years, however, through cultivation in the Americas, pumpkins became sweeter, fleshier, and more similar to the winter squash seen at the market today.

The Health Benefits of Pumpkins

Although pumpkin is thought of as a starchy vegetable, it’s actually quite low in carbohydrates when you compare it to other starchy vegetables. It’s also loaded with essential nutrients that boost the immune system, decrease inflammation, and can potentially help regulate blood sugar. The vitamin A content in pumpkin is off the charts, especially in the free-radical scavenging forms of alpha and beta carotene. One cup of pumpkin provides not only a day’s worth of vitamin A, but also a good start on your vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and manganese. These nutrients help fight infection and protect cells from oxidative damage.

That whole cup of pumpkin is only 30 calories and contains just 7 grams of carbohydrates — that’s equivalent to half a slice of bread! The carbohydrates are thought to be of a higher quality as well, consisting mostly of polysaccharides such as pectins, which slow absorption and have only a small effect on blood sugar. Along with the pectins, the high concentration of B vitamins and a compound called d-chiro-inositol also make pumpkin and other winter squashes targets for future research in preventing type 2 diabetes and blood-sugar dysregulation.

How to Choose the Right Pumpkin

Pumpkins should be firm, without any bruising or soft spots. You want the rind to be firm to the touch, otherwise the pumpkin may be watery and lacking in flavor. Choose a gourd that is heavy for its size, as that means the flesh will likely be denser and sweeter.

The Culinary Possibilities

Besides the obvious uses — pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin latte — pumpkin has other creative and tasty possibilities, such as:

  • Substitute pumpkin in almost any recipe that calls for winter squash.
  • Cube and roast pumpkin mixed with other veggies such as rutabaga, parsnips, and turnips. Or, roast it alone and throw it onto a salad.
  • Purée pumpkin and make it into pumpkin soup, seasoning it with coconut milk and Indian curry or chicken stock and fresh herbs.
  • Try in in your favorite recipes: Pumpkin is delicious when added to Thai curry as cubed and sautéed pieces. You can also make pumpkin lasagna, using strips of zucchini instead of noodles for extra veggie power.
  • Stuff a small pumpkin with pre-sautéed veggies and cooked ground turkey and roast it in the oven for about 45 minutes. This impressive presentation is great for holidays!

To get started on your pumpkin culinary adventure, try this recipe for a new, more nutrient-dense take on chili.

Pumpkin Chili

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs. grass-fed ground beef
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans kidney beans, drained
  • 1 (46 oz.) can tomato juice
  • 1 (28 oz.) can peeled and diced tomatoes with juice
  • 1 can pumpkin puree
  • 1 tbs. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. salt

Directions

  1. In a large pot over medium heat, cook the beef until it’s browned and fully cooked.
  2. Stir in the vegetables — onion, pepper, carrots, and celery — and cook for five minutes.
  3. Stir in the beans, tomato juice, diced tomatoes, and pumpkin puree. Add the spices and garlic to season.
  4. Let simmer for one hour before serving.

Pumpkin and fall are synonymous. Incorporate this produce into your weekly repertoire while it’s in season. It can provide all the nutritional benefits we mentioned above, including helping to boost your immune system during a season that often calls for it to be strong. Besides all of that, pumpkin is a dense and sweet food that could replace the need for other less healthy options. Be adventurous and try new dishes and flavor combinations — it will keep your mouth happy and nurture your body.

[i] “Pumpkin.” USDA Nutrient Database. Available online http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl. Accessed November 7, 2011.

[ii] “Winter Squash.” World’s Healthiest Foods.” Available at http://whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=63. Accessed November 7, 2011.

[iii] Jayaprakasam B, Seeram NP and Nair MG. Anticancer and antiinflammatory activities of cucurbitacins from Cucurbita andreana. Cancer Lett. 2003 Jan 10;189(1):11-16. 2003.

[iv] Nara K, Yamaguchi A, Maeda N et al. Antioxidative activity of water soluble polysaccharide in pumpkin fruits (Cucurbita maxima Duchesne). Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2009 Jun;73(6):1416-8. Epub 2009 Jun 7. 2009

[v] Xia T and Wang Q. D-chiro-inositol found in Cucurbita ficifolia (Cucurbitaceae) fruit extracts plays the hypoglycaemic role in streptozocin-diabetic rats. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2006 Nov;58(11):1527-32. 2006

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