In Praise of Pumpkins via Real Life Nutrition

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

It’s that time of year when pumpkins get their due. But these orange-fleshed gourds are so much more than seasonal décor or pie filling. Pumpkins are nutritional powerhouses, so I’m thrilled to see such enthusiasm for this fall icon.

Folks have become so enamored with pumpkin that some trend trackers have called it the new bacon. That’s because pumpkin is showing up everywhere. It’s starting to achieve bacon-like ubiquity. The firm Dataessential says more than 60 pumpkin-related dishes are now on the menus of America’s top 250 chains, and this year is on track to be one of the most active years for seasonal pumpkin menuing.  Pumpkin drink offerings have increased 400 percent during the past five years – although you’ll typically only find pumpkin spice flavorings and not the vegetable itself.

I’ve certainly noticed the pumpkin trend on Healthy Aperture, the online food photo gallery I helped created with fellow food blogger Regan Jones. Contributors have gone crazy with creative pumpkin recipes, including pumpkin mac and cheese, ravioli, chili, soup, enchiladas, risotto, granola, pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, doughnuts, pumpkin butter, gelato, cake, cheesecake shooters and smoothies.  You’ll also find interesting ideas for roasting pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas.

It’s a good thing that pumpkin is gaining in popularity. We need to be eating more orange-hued vegetables. The color is an indicator of lots of carotenoids, including beta carotene, which our body converts to vitamin A. Pumpkin is also rich in vitamin C, fiber, and potassium (one of the nutrients most likely to be lacking in the American diet.) You’ll also find the compounds lutein and zeaxanthin, which are good for our eyes.

Canned pumpkin can be used in lots of ways beyond pie – stirred into muffins, quick breads, and pancakes or added to soups, risottos, and pasta dishes. You can also easily make your own pumpkin puree. That way you can control the amount of sugar that’s used.

Yet, one of my favorite ways to enjoy pumpkin is roasted. Cutting a pumpkin is not just for Jack O’Lanterns. Once you remove the seeds (save those for roasting) and the hard outer shell, pumpkin is delicious roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt and spices, such as cinnamon or cayenne. But don’t stop there. Check out other winter squashes, such as butternut, acorn, delicata, turban, hubbard, kabocha, and spaghetti squash (which has a stringy flesh that makes a great stand-in for pasta). Don’t be intimidated by their thick, gnarly skins and funny names. These are wondrous vegetables to get to know.

Remember, we need to fill half our plates with vegetables and fruits. Yet, few Americans are actually meeting daily vegetable guidelines. We’re not eating enough, and we’re not varying our veggies. MyPlate recommends 4-6 cups of orange-red vegetables every week. Pumpkin, a uniquely American vegetable, is a good place to start.

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