Pumpkins: Carving out Good Health!

September 17, 2010

On farm stands across the country, the reds, yellows and greens of summer are turning to the oranges of fall. Yes, the Great Pumpkin has arrived!

On farm stands across the country, the reds, yellows and greens of summer are turning to the oranges of fall. Yes, the Great Pumpkin has arrived!

Festive and flavorful, a single serving of the delectable orange squash is chock full of vitamin A and potassium and best of all, fat free. 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 the advent of the Halloween season.

Deriving its name from "pepon," the Greek word for large melon, pumpkins are believed to have been first cultivated in Mesoamerica. Some seeds 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.

One variety, called Orange Smoothie, is bred for its extremely smooth skin and small size, making it ideal for small children to decorate. Another variety, Snackjack, is bred for its high production of seeds without shells. That makes them better for toasting, of course.

Subtly sweet and nutty with a malleable, 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.

Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are flat, dark green seeds. Pumpkin seeds, 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 celebratory side dish, and is popular in soups, breads and pies. The carotene pigments that give pumpkins their signature orange color are being studied for their potential prostate benefits.