Nothing says autumn like pumpkins on the doorstep and pumpkin pie on the table. In fact, sometimes it seems as though everything is pumpkin flavored this time of year. Pumpkin is flavoring everything from candy and coffee to ice cream and doughnuts. It’s a shame to give this food such a bad name. Pumpkins and pumpkin seeds are nutrient-dense foods that score high on my Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI).
As we all know, Native American Indians used pumpkin as a staple in their diets for centuries before the pilgrims landed. Pumpkins and squashes were important crops for the Indians and later the pilgrims because they stored well and provided a nutritious food source during the winter months.
Pumpkins and related squashes are good sources of beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants belonging to a group of pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids are important for proper immune function; they defend the body’s tissues against oxidative damage, helping to prevent chronic diseases and premature aging.1 Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only known carotenoids located in the human retina. They help protect the eye from damage and improve several aspects of visual performance. 2
Pumpkin makes a great pie but don’t stop there. Pumpkin puree can be stirred into soups, stews or chilis. Whip up a pumpkin smoothie by blending pumpkin puree with a banana, spinach or romaine lettuce, a few dates, some non-diary milk and cinnamon and nutmeg. I recommend cooking your own pumpkin puree or using the puree packed in non-BPA containing tetrapak cartons.
|To make pumpkin puree, it is best to choose the lighter colored “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins,” they are sweeter and less watery than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins. Cut the top from the pumpkin and scrape out the stringy membranes and seeds. Cut the pumpkin into large pieces and place in a roasting pan. Pour ½ cup water into the bottom of the pan and cover with foil. Bake 45-60 minutes or until pumpkin is soft and easily pierced with a fork. Scrape the soft pulp from the skin into a food processor or blender and puree. Leftover pumpkin puree may be frozen in an airtight container for up to 12 months.
Many kinds of winter squash can be used for pies. In fact, the pumpkin puree available in cans and cartons is actually not pumpkin. It is made from one or more kinds of winter squashes such as butternut, Hubbard and Boston Marrow, which are less stringy and richer in sweetness and color.
When you are making your pumpkin puree or carving a jack-o-lantern, don’t throw away the seeds. The seeds inside the pumpkin, also known as pepitas, are not only flavorful, they are a super food. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, are high in phytochemicals and are rich in zinc, calcium and iron.
|To prepare pumpkin seeds, rinse them under cold water and pick out the pulp and strings. Place the seeds in a single layer on a non-stick baking sheet and if desired, sprinkle with your choice of no-salt seasonings. Bake at 225 degrees F until lightly toasted, about 45 minutes, checking and stirring frequently. Sprinkle them on salads, mix into healthy baked recipes or use them as a topping for soups and entrees.
So this fall, ignore those SAD pumpkin-flavored fake foods. Enjoy the delicious flavors and health benefits of fresh pumpkins, pumpkin seeds and other winter squashes.
1. Higdon J: Carotenoids. In An Evidence-Based Approach to Dietary Phytochemicals. 2006: 47-61.
Krinsky NI, Johnson EJ. Carotenoid actions and their relation to health and disease. Mol Aspects Med2005;26:459-516.
2. Stringham JM, Bovier ER, Wong JC, et al. The influence of dietary lutein and zeaxanthin on visual performance. J Food Sci 2010;75:R24-29.