Pumpkins: not just for carving

Carving pumpkins and indulging in pumpkin pies may be a favorite pastime for many of us who grew up celebrating Halloween. Yet, why is it that our mothers never took the same pumpkins that we carved for making pumpkin pies? Because despite all the similar looking pumpkins we see in pumpkin patches, different types are used for carving jack-o-lanterns than for cooking foods.

According to John Masiunas, an associate professor of food cropping systems, “The jack-o-lantern pumpkins have a softer skin, or rind on them. They have a larger seed capacity with handles inside and they generally have a softer flesh. The processing pumpkins’ [used for cooking] flesh is denser and they have less stringy fiber — the material you pull out with the seeds.”

Setting aside the differences between the two types of pumpkins, both are high in nutrients.

“Pumpkin is a fruit of a plant that develops from an ovary that has had seeds, but we use it by common uses that is measured [as] a vegetable,” Masiunas said. “It’s high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium and zinc. And by itself it is low in calories.”

Furthermore, pumpkins are rich in antioxidants — substances that have been found to prevent cancer and other diseases.

“Pumpkins are a great source of beta-carotene, which is a carotenoid that converts to Vitamin A in the body,” said Susan Kundrat, a registered dietician and the sports nutritionist of Illinois Athletics. “The consumption of beta-carotene from food has been associated with a lower risk of certain cancers, a decreased risk of heart disease, and being protective against diseases such as degenerative eye disease.”

Aside from eating pumpkin pie however, there are many other ways to use pumpkin in our every day cooking.

“The most popular way is probably opening the can,” Masiunas joked. “There is a number of other recipes, but soups would probably be the most popular, savory way to have pumpkin.”

Masiunas said another way to eat pumpkin is rinsing and baking the seeds from the jack-o-lantern pumpkins and enjoying it as a snack.

Outside of the traditional range of pumpkin recipes, there are a whole range of products that incorporate pumpkin.

“Pumpkin seed oil is a really good one because its been researched for its potential as a health cure — as a way to treat common colds,” Masiunas said.

Pumpkin seed oil can also be used as a dressing in salads, combined with honey and olive oil.

For those with a sweet tooth, there are plenty of savory options to incorporate pumpkin as a staple ingredient.

Kundrat said making pumpkin muffins and bars, along with mixing it in oatmeal with a little sweetener are other ways to include pumpkin in one’s diet.

CeCe Marizu, a graduate student said she enjoys making pumpkin bread not only for its comforting taste, but also for its health benefits.

“I think it’s always a great way to mix up your diet at this point of the year and any way to get nutrients that taste great is always a bonus,” Marizu said. “I know when baking with pumpkin it saves some of the fat from other desserts and it’s full of antioxidants where you can never go wrong, especially during cold season.”

Kundrat said while foods such as pumpkin bread and soup are tasty, it’s important to watch out for the ingredients that can make the final product unhealthy.

“Adding extra sugar and fat can certainly decrease the overall healthiness of pumpkin products, so moderation is the key here,” Kundrat said.

For those coming from abroad that have never tasted pumpkin, Masiunas said dig into that pumpkin pie now.

“We talk about [how] in some ways that quintessential American food is apple pie, but pumpkin pie is just as much,” Masiunas said.