We all know the old expression,” If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. So what do you do when life gives you pumpkins? Make something nutritious, of course! Many of us have cooked with “the other orange squashes”, butternut and acorn, but cooking with pumpkin remains unchartered territory. In fact, 99% of all pumpkins grown in the United States are sold for Halloween jack-o-lanterns! That’s an unfortunate statistic, considering that pumpkin is a super food of the plant kingdom in terms of its essential nutrient content. Let’s explore this little beauty together and see if we can’t make pumpkin a part of our nutritional line up!
To begin with, the pumpkins we want to be cooking with and eating are sugar pumpkins, or small, less fibrous versions of those big Halloween beauties. So what makes these little guys so special?
THE NUTRITIONAL SCOOP
Pumpkin contains a stunning variety and concentration of many key nutrients for sustaining heart, lung, and immune system health and for protecting our bodies against various types of cancer. Here’s the rundown:
- Slows biological aging, protects against age related disorders like Cataracts and macular degeneration
- Potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant protection
Lutein, zeaxanthin, Beta-cryptoxanthin
- Prevents vision loss, protects against cancer
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
- Omega 3 essential fatty acid that decreases risk of coronary vascular disease, lowers triglyceride levels, and prevents irregular heart rhythms
Vitamin A, C
- Promotes growth and development of healthy lung tissue, protects lungs from environmental damage
- Prevents plaque build-up in arteries
- Immune system booster
- Promotes gastrointestinal health, decreases stomach acidity, facilitates healing of gastric and duodenal ulcers
- Creates feeling of fullness to aid appetite management
- Soluble fiber helps remove harmful cholesterol from body
- Insoluble fiber aids bowel regulation
- Regulates blood pressure
- Brain boosting nutrient for improved mood and memory
Vitamin B6, Folate, Niacin
- Improves circulatory function
Vitamin B1, B5
- Boosts energy production
- Antioxidant, decreases free radical activity
- Promotes sleep
Quite a line-up! But wait, there’s more! PUMPKIN SEEDS contain their own nutritional Hall of Fame:
- Concentrated source of this essential building block for muscle and tissue development and repair.
- One of the only sources for this unusual amino acid that effectively rids the body of intestinal parasites; decreases prostate enlargement
- Immune system stimulant and builder of mineral bone density in men
- Decreases inflammation in arthritis, supports bone and joint flexibility
- Scavenges for and eliminates free radicals
- Relaxes muscles
- Boosts energy
1 cup of cooked pumpkin has just 80 calories!! That’s a lot of nutritional bang for the calorie buck!! One quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains 8.5 grams of protein! However, seeds, like nuts, should be eaten in moderation…1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds also contains 187 calories and 15.85 grams of fat, though it is the heart healthy kind!
A FEW PUMPKIN FACTS:
- Native Americans buried winter squashes, like pumpkin, with their dead to provide nourishment for their final journey!
- Pumpkins are part of the cucurbitaceae family which includes melons and cucumbers.
- The hard protective skin of winter squashes like pumpkin gives them a long storage life of 3-4 weeks. But careful not to nick or bruise them…once bruised, winter squashes rot quickly! Pumpkin seeds can be safely stored in the fridge for up to 6 months and in the freezer for up to a year.
- Once cut, pumpkin should be used within a couple of days, since the Vitamin C content is rapidly depleted.
- Sugar pumpkins are best selected when firm, heavy for their size, and with a dull, not glossy rind.
- Whole pumpkin and other winter squashes should be stored in a cool, dark location away form heat and light (50-60 degrees). Once cut, store pumpkin in an airtight container or bag with excess air removed in the crisper drawer of your fridge (33-40 degrees).
- Slow roasting pumpkin intensifies the flavor and sweetness. Pierce the whole pumpkin near the stem to release steam and roast in a shallow pan with 1” of water at 350 degrees for one hour. When tender, cut pumpkin in half and scoop out seeds.
- Cooking style does matter for winter squashes like pumpkin. BVitamins and Vitamin C are quickly lost when pumpkin is cooked in water. A small amount of water can be used to keep the squash from drying out during roasting, but avoid boiling all winter squashes.
- As with many vegetables, slow roasting increases the glycemic index of pumpkin, since the starches carmelize as the pumpkin roasts.
- Canned 100% pure pumpkin puree is a convenient substitution for cooked pumpkin in many recipes. Half a cup of puree contains only 40 calories and 5 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein!
- Despite its extremely high fiber content, pumpkin is smooth and very easy to digest, making it an excellent source of dietary fiber for people who don’t tolerate roughage well.
- Pumpkin seeds should be roasted at temperatures below 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Higher temperatures cause a breakdown of fats and the production of free radicals. As with most seeds and nuts, it’s best to buy raw and roast your own so you can control the roasting method.
- Pumpkin seed hulls or shells are high in fiber and edible.
- In case you missed it in the nutritional profile, pumpkin seeds are highly valuable for the men in your life! Pumpkin seeds contain nutrients that promote prostate health and help build bone density in men as they age (30% of hip fractures occur in men!)