Only the ghosts of our forebears know all the uses there have been for the humble pumpkin in the New World, or even worldwide. Often at Halloween, they promise a fun and inexpensive activity for kids and adults with a knife for carving, a spoon for scooping and a candle for illuminating the jack-o-lanterns that are such an iconic part of late October festivities.
But the most important use for this big orange veggie is for food. Native Americans cultivated it for millennia before they introduced it to the pilgrims, showing them how to harvest, prepare and store pumpkins. They’ve been a useful, staple food with double value because they can last for weeks and even months of autumn and winter.
A tribe called the Catawbas ate pumpkin seeds for kidney health. The Yumas made a mixture from pumpkin and watermelon seeds for wound healing, and the Menominees drank a powdered squash and pumpkin seed concoction to encourage urination.
Fast forwarding a handful of centuries, we now know that adding pumpkin to foods provides a warm, satisfying “foodiness” that your body knows and science proves is more than just tasty but also health beneficial. You may be surprised to learn that nearly every part of the pumpkin plant is edible, including the leaves and flowers. Squash blossoms, are large, edible blooms that lend interesting flavor and elegance to many dishes.
While you’re enjoying your soup made from pumpkin puree with sweet potatoes, celery, carrots, onions, a garlic clove and a few teaspoons of herbs, keep in mind that the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are at work in your system. In fact, the ingredients in pumpkins make this hearty, fall-time food one of the staples for health.
So there’s a reason why pumpkins earn such high marks on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). Pumpkins provide, in a 1-cup serving, 11 percent of the fiber you need on a daily basis to keep your system running smoothly.
Besides being incredibly rich in vitamin A, with 245 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), that same amount of pumpkin, cooked, contains 19 percent of the RDA in vitamin C and 16 percent of the RDA in potassium, as well as riboflavin, copper and manganese.
According to Self Nutrition Data, pumpkins also provide smaller but still significant amounts of:
- Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).
- Vitamin B6.
Beta-carotenes are arguably one of the ingredients in this large veggie to deliver the most punch in the way of antioxidants. They provide the bright orange color, too.
The most prominent beta-carotenes and their functions are:
- Carotenoids, which help keep your tissues shielded against oxidative damage, making you more impervious to disease. They improve your immune system and starve off signs of premature aging. Lutein and zeaxanthin can be found in your retina. They help protect your eyes from damage and improve your vision in several ways. All combined, these vitamins, minerals and other nourishing qualities in pumpkins have a dramatic effect on your health. Heart health Pumpkin seeds, like nuts, contain impressive amounts of heart-healthy phytosterols.
- Re-energizes after a workout — One cup of cooked pumpkin contains more potassium, a refueling mineral, than a banana, usually touted to have an impressive amount. In comparison, pumpkin contains 564 milligrams of potassium to a banana’s 422.
- Skin protection — carotenoids in pumpkins contain wrinkle-fighting pigments, which help hydrate and zap free radicals in your skin and help prevent them from causing damage. The vitamins as well as powerful enzymes help clean your skin.
- Better eyesight — All that vitamin A mentioned earlier may help improve your night vision and sight in dim light, the National Institute of Health says.
- Potentially lower cancer risk — The beta-carotenes help fight cancer, because they contain an immunostimulant to activate better immune system function. Antioxidant activity in pumpkins has been shown to inhibit breast cancer, one study reported.
Pumpkins are a Cucurbitaceae veggie, along with squash, cucumbers and cantaloupes. They’re grown on a large scale and are removed from trailing vines to create autumn displays with Indian corn and hay bales. Afterward they can be transported to the kitchen.
When buying pumpkins, they should be fully ripe; tapping on the outside should produce a dense, hollow thump. Pass on the pumpkins that have cuts, blemishes or wrinkled surface skin.
Store your pumpkins in a cool, dry place, even if it’s outdoors before a hard frost, and they should be good for weeks to come.
Make sure you wash the outside of pumpkins before cutting into them, because many growers and even mom-and-pop operations use pesticides and herbicides rather than growing them naturally.
To cut, place the pumpkin on a hard surface and use a sharp knife to cut around the stem for removal. Then cut the pumpkin in half, following the deep grooves and scrape out the pith to discard, setting aside the seeds, if desired. Once they’re cut, portions should be covered and placed in the refrigerator.
Pumpkin seeds are a crunchy, delicious addition to salads or as a snack all by themselves. They also bring a separate set of nutrients: omega-3 fats and zinc, both of which may help support your skeletal health; calcium, iron and an array of beneficial phytochemicals help put them in the superfood category.
Tryptophan is the amino acid noted for encouraging afternoon naps after eating Thanksgiving turkey, but it’s also present in pumpkin seeds. While it may make your body feel languid and relaxed due to the serotonin content, the same ingredient plays a big role in lifting your outlook and mood.
One study revealed that pumpkin seeds, along with flax, poppy, sesame and sunflower seeds, several nuts, including cashews, pine nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios, plus chocolate and wheat germ, are foods that may play a part in stopping the trigger that causes cancer in men’s prostate cells.
To roast pumpkin seeds, wash them thoroughly in cold water after extracting them from the pithy core of the pumpkin. Spread them out on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake at 225 degrees F for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adding a sprinkle or two of natural salt helps bring out their nutty flavor.