Pumpkin: nutrition facts and health benefits

Pumpkin

The pumpkin comes from the squash family, these countless cucurbits, often mistaken for its close cousin, pumpkin. It is well rounded, always orange, with a hard peduncle, fibrous and a flesh rather stringy. The pumpkin is more or less flattened, with a tender stalk and a sweeter and a little stringy. It’s often orange and slightly red but also dark green, depending on the varieties.

Pumpkin history

The term “pumpkin” appeared at the end of the fifteenth century and meant “big mushroom” before designating the fruit of the botanical species C. maxima in the seventeenth century.

Among all squash species, the word here is taken in its broad sense, came from America. The species Cucurbita pepo, to which pumpkin, zucchini, neck squash, patty pan and marrow squash belong, was probably domesticated in northern Mexico, 8 000 to 10 000 years ago, while C. Maxima would have been in the Andes at a later time.

 

It is likely the seeds of these plants were first consumed, with their flesh being very bitter. Over the millennia, the selection has, however, allowed the production of fresher meat. The species Cucurbita pepo has spread northward to become, with corn and bean, the basis of the food of the Amerindians of North America, until the arrival of the first European conquerors.

The first pumpkins crossed the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus who discovered them in 1492 in the Caribbean. Their seeds were planted all over Europe as well as in Asia. In its true and natural history of the customs and the country of New France, published in 1663, the Frenchman Pierre Boucher. The “French” species in question was probably C. maxima, but it is not known by what way it would have been found in Europe.

Despite their nutritional richness, pumpkin as well as other squash are now relatively unknown and poorly cooked foods. In North America, pumpkin enjoys an ephemeral glory during the Halloween party, and makes a fleeting appearance on the American tables on the occasion of Thanksgiving (late November). But this popularity is essentially ornamental, a good part of the fruits ending their existence in the dustbin without having eaten their flesh or their seeds.

Health profile

Pumpkin is more commonly consumed in North America. Pumpkin contains a particularly interesting amount of carotenoids, antioxidant compounds. Unfortunately, it is more often used as a decoration element during Halloween than it is prepared to be consumed. This article will deal mainly with pumpkin and its seeds.

Active ingredients and properties

Several prospective and epidemiological studies have shown high consumption of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other chronic diseases. Some action mechanisms have been proposed to explain this protective effect; the presence of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables could play a role in it.

Antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds protecting the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. The latter are highly reactive molecules would be involved in the development of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other diseases related to aging. The main antioxidant compounds of the pumpkin are the carotenoids. The consumption of carotenoid-rich foods would be linked to a lower risk of developing certain cancers. It should be noted that carotenoids are better absorbed in the body when a small amount of fat is consumed in the same moment. It is therefore appropriate to consume the pumpkin with some nuts or a drizzle of oil, for example.

Beta-carotene. The main pumpkin carotenoid is beta-carotene, which largely contributes to its orange color. According to health authorities, 125 ml (1/2 cup) of cooked pumpkin contains a large amount of beta-carotene, or 2 713 μg. As a comparison, the carrot, recognized as one of the best sources of beta-carotene, contains more than 4 000 μg of this precious carotenoid. In addition to being a source of vitamin A for the body, beta-carotene would also have an antioxidant effect. It could improve some functions of the immune system. However, with regard to cancer prevention, some nuances need to be made. Indeed, several epidemiological studies have observed an association between the consumption of foods rich in beta-carotene and a decrease in the risk of certain cancers, but the effect of supplements of beta-carotene has not always brought beneficial results. It is still a good idea to focus on foods containing beta-carotene rather than supplements, as these foods naturally contain a host of other substances which can provide health benefits.

Lutein and zeaxanthin. The pumpkin contains a good amount of lutein and zeaxanthin, two other antioxidant compounds of the family carotenoids. According to health authorities nutrient file, 125 ml (1/2 cup) cooked pumpkin contains 1 313 μg of lutein and zeaxanthin. As a comparison, 250 ml (1 cup) of raw spinach, a vegetable very rich in these carotenoids, contains 3 867 μg. Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the macula and retina of the eyes, thus protecting it from oxidative stress which could cause damage. In fact, data from a scientific literature review indicate a steady intake of lutein and zeaxanthin is associated with a lower risk of macular degeneration and cataract, two eyes diseases. In addition, researchers are beginning to believe these compounds could help prevent certain cancers, including breast cancer and lung cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. It should be noted, however, that studies on cardiovascular health are still limited and sometimes contradictory.

Other carotenoids. The pumpkin also contains significant amounts of beta-cryptoxanthin and smaller amounts of alpha-carotene. Like other carotenoids, these compounds can turn into vitamin A in the body. They could avoid in vitro the proliferation of some cancer cells, which makes the beta-cryptoxanthin and the alpha carotene a promising compounds in cancer prevention.

Cancer. In recent years, some epidemiological and case-control studies have shown a link between pumpkin consumption and the risk of certain types of cancer. First, researchers observed people who consumed more pumpkins had a lower risk of different types of cancers. Conversely, two studies in Japan revealed that large pumpkin consumption (i.e., more than three times per week) was associated with a higher risk of some cancers. It should be noted these studies were carried out mainly in Asian countries, where the consumption of this vegetable is much more common than in North America. Given these contradictory results, more studies will be needed before establishing a significant link between pumpkin consumption and cancer incidence.

Blood. A recent scientific article with several studies in Asian countries indicates eating pumpkin extracts (in the form of powder or juice) helps to reduce blood glucose levels among animals and even among humain. An epidemiological study also revealed the consumption of carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables (including pumpkin and carrot) could be a protective factor against hyperglycemia in Japanese with diabetes or hyperglycemia. These results are promising, but more clinical studies will have to be done before concluding a regular pumpkin consumption brings such an effect. The carotenoids as well as certain types of carbohydrate (polysaccharides) contained in pumpkin could play a role in it. It should be noted the majority of these studies have used varieties of pumpkins grown in Orient, different from those consumed in North America.

Not ordinary seeds!

Pumpkin seeds contain a high amount of phytosterols. These compounds are recognized for their benefits on cardiovascular health and their potentially beneficial effects in the prevention of certain cancers. In addition, the fatty acids of pumpkin seeds are, in a large proportion, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, lipid types having beneficial effects against the risk factors of cardiovascular diseases. Pumpkin seeds may also be useful for relieving symptoms of irritable bladder (or hyperactive bladder) and urination disorders associated with benign prostate hypertrophy.

Canned pumpkin

There are pumpkin purées and canned pie topping mixes in supermarkets. These preparations, ready to use, have varying nutritional values, depending on the ingredients added. Pumpkin purées are usually made of pumpkin only. On the other hand, pie pads may contain spices, vegetable oil, salt, dye and sugar. So they can contain up to five times more sugar, three times more calories and much more sodium than mashed pumpkin. The use of mashed pumpkin canned is a good alternative if you want to avoid the preparation and cooking stages of fresh pumpkin. Even if there is nothing better than a good homemade mashed pumpkin!

Precautions

Allergies

Although allergy to food from the Cucurbits family (including the many varieties of squash, zucchini, patty pan, etc.) is fairly widespread, few cases of pumpkin seed allergy have been reported. Pumpkin, watermelon, cucumber and zucchini form a group of foods with highly associated allergies; an allergic person to one of these foods is thus more likely to be allergic to the other three.

Choice and conservation

Choose

Fruit. The pumpkin must be firm, heavy in the hand, its hard bark, without stains or cracks.

Seeds. Unless packaged under vacuum, the seeds quickly lose their freshness. The best time to buy them is during fall, just after the harvest.

Oil. Preferably choose a 100% pure pumpkin oil (inexpensive products may contain other types of oil), cold pressed and labeled with an expiration date.

Conservation

Fruit: Kept in a cool and dry place, it will keep a few weeks. Avoid the refrigerator. In the cellar, it will keep a few weeks or months, depending on the varieties.

Dehydrator: The flesh dries well. Empty the fruit and peel it, cut it into thin slices and put the latter to the dehydrator or the oven set at low temperature.

Seeds: Store them preferably in the refrigerator to delay the rancidity.

Oil: It is preserved 18 months after its production. See the expiration date on the label. Keep it cool and dry, free from light. Once the bottle is started, put it in the refrigerator.

Organic gardening

Pumpkin is really not suitable for small gardens, with creeping stalks up to 12 meters in length.

  • Form mounds of up to 20 centimeters (up to 40 cm) and spaced 1 meter. Ideally, they will have been formed the previous fall. The rows must be spaced 3 or 4 m apart.
  • Make sure the ground is warmed up before planting. Put a black plastic sheet a few days in advance to warm it up more.
  • Soil ph should be between 6 and 7.5. If it is lower, add lime.
  • Dig a hole in the mound and fill with compost or good decomposed manure. If necessary, add a natural potassium fertilizer.
  • It is possible to sow in the ground, but many prefer to start their plants inside, three or four weeks before planting. Sow in individual containers, cucurbits having horror that one disturbs their roots. Transplant with delicacy.

If necessary, protect the young plants from the cold by sheltering them with a plastic or textile tunnel for agricultural use.

  • Irrigate regularly, but without excess, until the fruit is formed, where the water supply will need to be increased. Interrupt irrigation a few days before harvesting.
  • In the event of a severe infestation of rootworm, treat rotenone.

Powdery mildew (or white disease) is now universally widespread and can affect fruit maturation if it appears too early in the season. Preventative applications of sulfur, a garlic extract or a baking soda solution every week will limit the damage.

Ecology and environment

Originally, the fruits of the family of cucurbits were bitter, due to the presence of cucurbitacin, a toxic compound the plants developed in order to defend themselves against herbivores attracted by their succulent leaves, and against various insects. However, during the course of evolution, striped rootworm, the main predatory insect of cucurbits, has developed a detoxification system allowing it to grow and reproduce by feeding it despite their high toxicity rate. What is more, it is the smell of this bitter compound that allows it to spot its favorite plants at very great distances. And it eggs, which is lays on the leaves, contain substantial amounts of this poison, which protects them from the ants would seek to feed them. This is a remarkable example of co-evolution between a species of animal kingdom and another of the plant kingdom.

Wild plants

In southern United States, wild pumpkin plants behave like real weeds in other crops (including corn, soybeans and cotton). Since the transfer of resistance genes has effect of promoting their establishment in the fields, they are much more difficult to eradicate, which may require the use powerful herbicides.

However, for human being, this cordial agreement is a problem researchers have partly solved by creating, crossing and selecting, varieties with reduced cucurbitacin levels. Crossing and selection techniques, which are as old as agriculture itself, generally have little effect on the wild populations of plants when there is genetic compatibility. On the other hand, the use of transgenesis, which allows the introduction into a genes plant may have negative consequences. For example, recent studies concluded the introduction of foreign genes to confer disease resistance on cucurbits could contaminate wild populations and make them resistant.

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