Nothing says October like the sight of pumpkin “everything” in the grocery store. From pumpkin-flavored coffee and creamers to cereals, cookies, baked goods, ice cream, and even dog food. October 26, is National Pumpkin Day. A day to recognize and celebrate our fall favorite.
With so many types and varieties of pumpkins, how do you know which to choose? Depending on whether you plan to cook with them or decorate them, your choice makes a difference. Pie pumpkins are usually smaller in size and have darker flesh. Carving pumpkins have a thicker shell and aren’t as tasty.
Our fascination with pumpkins peaks in autumn, but pumpkin is available year-round and is a nutritious food with many health benefits. Packed with vitamins and minerals, pumpkin also provides fiber and antioxidants to help support our immune system. And don’t forget about the seeds. They too are rich in nutrients and a good source of healthy fats.
THE HISTORY OF PUMPKIN
Pumpkins are native to Central America, Mexico, and the southern United States. The term pumpkin originated from the Greek word peopon, meaning large melon. It was changed by the English to pompon and later to pumpion, and over time, became the term we use today.
Pumpkins are one of America’s oldest native crops. Along with corn and beans, pumpkins were an important food source for Native Americans. Due to their solid, thick flesh, pumpkins were optimal for storing during cold weather months and times of sparsity.
Early settlers dried pumpkin shells, cut them into strips, and wove them into mats. They also left the flesh to dry and used it as ground meal and flour. In 1672, the first pumpkin recipe came out in the New-England Rarities Discovered. It was a side dish similar to mashed sweet potatoes. It wasn’t long before Colonists found many other uses for pumpkin in soups, stews, pies, and puddings.
The custom of pumpkin carving came from Irish immigrants who brought their tradition of root vegetable carving to America. We get the term Jack-o-Lantern from the legend of “Stingy Jack“, an Irish myth about Jack and his deals with the devil. After having tricked and angered the devil, Jack was banished into darkness. He was only allowed a lump of burning coal to light his way which he placed in a carved-out turnip. The Irish nicknamed him Jack of the Lantern which later became Jack-O-Lantern. Today, pumpkins are one of the most popular crops grown in the United States with Illinois producing the largest amount. The ‘Pumpkin Capital of the World’ is located in Morton, Illinois, where Libby’s pumpkin corporation calls home. Eighty percent of the pumpkin crop is harvested in the month of October and 98% of these are used for decoration and Jack-o-Lanterns.
PUMPKIN TYPES AND VARIETIES
There are many types of pumpkins, as well as numerous varieties of each type. The more common ones we see are:
Classic orange pumpkins (Autumn Gold, Jack-o-Lantern) range in size from small to large and are best for decorating and carving.
Pie pumpkins (Baby Bear, Cinderella) are smaller in size and have darker colored flesh.
Miniature pumpkins (Baby Boo, Jack Be Little) are very small and may be orange, white, or green. These are best for decorating or painting.
Warty pumpkins (Galeux d’Eysines, Warty Goblin) are uniquely shaped with very bumpy exteriors. They can be cooked, but do not work well for carving. Warty pumpkins are sometimes called heirloom pumpkins because of their unique appearance.
Blue pumpkins (Blue Lakota, Blue Max) are also called heirloom pumpkins because of their color and shape. They can be used for decorating and roasting seeds.
Ghostly white pumpkins (Casper, White Pie) do not carve well and are better painted or left as is. They are also good for baking.
NUTRITION AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF PUMPKIN
Much of the health benefits associated with pumpkin come from the properties of its vitamin and mineral makeup. Pumpkins are rich sources of these nutrients:
–Vitamin A is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. It also helps protect eyesight, prevent loss of night vision, and reduce the risk for age-related macular degeneration.
–Vitamin K is essential for normal blood clotting. It is also important for maintaining bone health and reducing the risk of fracture.
–Vitamins E and C are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants help reduce the risk of stress-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer by neutralizing dangerous free radicals.
–Vitamin B6 is essential for healthy brain function and benefits the central nervous system. Some research finds it may be linked to reducing the risk of cognitive decline.
–Riboflavin is an antioxidant and also helps the body change vitamin B6 into a form it can use.
–Copper helps make red blood cells and aids the body in absorbing iron, reducing the risk of anemia.
–Iron is essential for normal growth and development and helps the body produce hemoglobin that carries oxygen from the lungs to other places in the body.
–Magnesium is essential to support hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. Studies suggest it may play a role in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
–Potassium is essential for regulating the heartbeat. It is critical for maintaining healthy blood pressure and may be associated with decreased risk of stroke.
Pumpkin is also low in calories. One cup has about 130 calories and provides 7 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE SEEDS.
Pumpkin seeds are also quite nutritious. They too, are excellent sources of magnesium and copper, but also provide these nutrients:
–Phosphorous is essential for forming and maintaining the integrity of bones and teeth. It is also important for muscle contraction and helping muscles to recover after exercise.
–Zinc is important for immune function and wound healing. It also supports vision and thyroid function.
A one-ounce serving, or about 85 seeds, provides 125 calories, 1 gram of fiber, and 4 grams of protein. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of healthy monounsaturated and omega-6 fats and provide about 5 grams per ounce. Pumpkin seeds can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory recipes, or roasted and enjoyed as is.
All parts of the pumpkin are edible, except for the stalk. That includes the flowers, stems, leaves, and skin. The flowers can be eaten raw, added to salads, or tucked into sandwiches. They can be fried, sautéed, or added to other vegetables in a stir-fry.
Pumpkin leaves can be prepared similarly to spinach or other greens. The flesh can be roasted or baked until soft, pureed, and used in pies, soups, bread, or anything you enjoy pumpkin flavor in. After roasting, the skin can be peeled and dried as a snack, used as a salad topper, or as a garnish for soup. Pumpkin stems can be cooked or steamed and added to soups or stir-frys.
The pumpkin has been around for centuries and was a staple for Native Americans. Its tough exterior, tasty flesh, and long storage life made pumpkins an important and popular crop. Early settlers quickly learned how to grow it and find new ways to use and enjoy it.
Today, October brings pumpkins at every turn. But the hype shouldn’t be reserved for a few short weeks. Pumpkins are packed with vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and antioxidants, which makes them a great choice any time of the year. And don’t forget the seeds! They too are nutritious. Toast or roast them or use them as salad toppings, additions to cereals and soups, or added to baked goods and breads.
Make it a goal to use pumpkin in a new way this year. Introduce friends and family to the nutritional value of autumn’s favorite fruit. And be sure to celebrate National Pumpkin Day on October 26!