I have never been huge on pumpkins or eating them. This is mostly because it’s just not something that my family ever made. Although I like the taste of pumpkin just fine, I’m generally perplexed when autumn comes around and everyone begins crowding their nearest coffee shop. So I figured I would explore the phenomenon and see what pumpkins were about.
I began to think about whether most people actually ate pumpkin or just enjoyed the variety of flavored foods that really have little to do with pumpkin. Starbucks’ insanely popular Pumpkin Spiced Latte, for example, offers zero actual pumpkin and an obscene dose of sugar. Additionally, most of the canned pumpkin puree so many use to bake pumpkin pie actually contains varieties of squash rather than actual pumpkin. Despite these contradictions, in my research, I found that pumpkin had a lot to offer as a food that goes beyond pie, lattes, or soups.
What is a Pumpkin?
The fact is, the word pumpkin has a very loose definition and is often used interchangeably with similar fruit—that’s right it is a fruit. Pumpkins belong to the Cucurbitaceae family which includes squash, zucchini, and some gourds. A pumpkin is a Cucurbita pepo which is also joined by winter squash and summer squash, which is the most prevalent of the three. As far as pumpkin pie recipes go, winter squash and the quintessential pumpkin are rather interchangeable, with most companies opting to use winter squash in their puree rather than pumpkin. Pumpkins also have leaves and flowers. In fact, the flowers are what make it a fruit. According to the Mayo Clinic, a fruit is the part of a plant that develops from a flower, as well as the section that contains seeds.
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Pumpkin As Food
As it turns out, there is a difference between pumpkins meant to be carved into jack-o-lanterns and those meant for consumption which are often called “pie pumpkins.” Most pumpkins can be consumed but some are better suited than others. What you look for in a carving pumpkin is minimal flesh, so that you can hollow it out nicely, and carve shapes with ease. These can be eaten but they are generally watery and lack flavor. The kind of pumpkins you want to eat are generally heavier than they appear because they are dense with flesh. This flesh is what you want when you eat a pumpkin. It can be pureed and roasted either diced or whole. There are a great variety of recipes both sweet and savory that utilize pumpkin flesh. On small pumpkins such as Jack Be-Little’s, you can carve out the pulp, bake whole and eat the inside with various topics as if from a bowl.
Edible varieties that most resemble the proverbial pumpkin include the Cinderella, The Fairy Tale, New England Pie, Long Island Cheese, and Baby Pam. Others of the heirloom variety are the Jarrahdale, and the Hubbard, to name a few. Even if you are just carving pumpkins, you can make a nice snack from the seeds and the pulp by spreading the mixture on a baking sheet and roasting it in the oven. The stringy pulp caramelizes, making it sweet and nutty, while the seeds develop a nice crunch. That also saves you time by not having to clean the seeds of the pulp. If you want to create even less waste, you can bake whatever you carved out of the pumpkin.
The leaves and flowers of the pumpkin are edible as well, which I found most interesting. You can find these for sale at farmers markets, but they need to be eaten fresh. Flowers make an awesome snack, either stuffed with cheese or fried in tempura. Leaves are a bit more versatile, allowing one to use more for shakes, soups, or salads.The skin can also be eaten. When you roast a pumpkin, you can peel the skin off and dehydrate it to make healthy chips out of it.
Why You Should Consider Eating Pumpkins
It seems like a lot of work. However, on nutritional grounds alone pumpkins should be enjoyed outside of lattes and pies. Pumpkins are low in calories, and high in dietary fiber, antioxidants, minerals (copper, calcium, potassium, and phosphorous), and vitamins A, and C. This translates to your health in a variety of ways. The high fiber content, which is roughly three grams per one cup serving of pumpkin, is ideal for weight loss. Fiber slows digestion making one feel full for longer and therefore eat less. Rich in potassium, pumpkin is also a great way to refuel after a workout, making it an ideal food for someone who is exercising and dieting as a way to lose weight. The Vitamin A in pumpkin promotes eye health, especially aiding vision in dim light. One cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin contains 200 percent of your daily intake of Vitamin A.
Pumpkin seeds are good for the heart since they are rich in phytosterols which reduce bad cholesterol. They also aid in mood because of their rich tryptophan content. Tryptophan is an amino acid necessary for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. The flowers and leaves of a pumpkin are also nutritious. Leaves offer iron, calcium, Vitamin A and C, much like pumpkin itself. The flowers offer more of the same but are 90 percent water. This require a lot of flowers to make a significant benefit.
Final Thoughts on Eating Pumpkins
I suppose what really concerned me when I began thinking about this topic was waste. How much pumpkin is used for consumption rather than decoration? Are people who do eat pumpkins getting the most out of them? What happens to all the pumpkins that go unpicked? Happily, they are not wasted. In the end, they are either collected by the puree companies that make pie filling, fed to livestock such as cows which devour the stuff, or used as compost by farmers who grind the pumpkins into the soil. But really, shouldn’t we truly enjoy them as they were meant to be, as delicious, nutritious fruit born from the Earth? By all means, buy a carving pumpkin for your jack-o-lantern. But while you’re at it, get a pie pumpkin and get some meals out of it. Pumpkin season comes and goes so take full advantage of the fruit while you can. Canned pumpkin can be bought any time of year. Fresh is best, so try something new and interesting in addition to old favorites.