Happy Halloween: Pumpkin Benefits

October 31, 2013

Pumpkins are everywhere, from the pumpkin patches to the flavorful and nutritious as well

Pumpkins are everywhere, from the pumpkin patches to the front stoop, and not only are they festive but they are flavorful and nutritious as well. A single serving of the delectable orange squash is chock full of vitamin A and potassium. A staple in the diets of Native Americans long before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, pumpkins have come to signify the arrival of the fall harvest and of course Halloween.

Deriving its name from "pepon," the Greek word for large melon, pumpkins are believed to have been first cultivated in Mesoamerica. Some seeds are actually from related plants date back to 5000 B.C. when Spanish and Portuguese explorers carried the seeds of pumpkins back to Europe. Nutty, chewy, and sweet, pumpkins have been used as holiday lanterns since the late 1800s when the Halloween pumpkin craze really took off.

Pumpkins take anywhere from 65 to 200 days to mature, depending on variety. There are hundreds of varieties, though all pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita. Most pumpkins belong to one of three species: Cucurbita moschata - which includes the tan-colored commercial pumpkins used mostly for canning, Cucurbita pepo - which includes the medium-sized pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns, and Cucurbita maxima - which includes the giant pumpkins often found in festivals and pumpkin-growing competitions.

Subtly sweet and nutty with a chewy texture, the roasted seeds from inside your Halloween pumpkin are one of the most nutritious and flavorful seeds around. While pumpkin seeds are available year round, they are the freshest in the fall when pumpkins are in season. They are also known as pepitas, and are a good source of iron, zinc and essential fatty acids. Some are encased in a yellow-white husk, although some varieties of pumpkins produce seeds without shells. Pumpkin seeds should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. While they may stay edible for several months, they seem to lose their peak freshness after about one to two months.

Most pumpkin varieties start out green and turn orange when ripe. Some tropical pumpkins are actually ripe when green. When choosing a pumpkin for cooking or baking, look for fruits that are heavy for their size with a hard shell - just the opposite of the ideal ornamental pumpkin.

Although the pumpkin is botanically classified as a fruit, nutritionists consider it a vegetable for culinary purposes. Pumpkin is often served as a side dish, and is popular in soups, breads and pies. The carotenoids that give pumpkins their signature orange color are powerful antioxidants that protect health, especially during cold and flu season. As well as having a good amount of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, manganese and folate, pumpkins are also a source of Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and copper. It would be a scare not to include pumpkins in some of your meals this holiday season!

Happy Halloween!