Zucchini: nutrition facts and health benefits

Zucchini

The zucchini is the fruit of a plant having the same name. This small plant belongs to the large family of cucurbits and is picked before its maturity. According to the many varieties, this fruit, used as a vegetable, is elongated or round, of green or yellow color. On each plant there are male flowers, which thrive on the stems, and female flowers, which appear at the end of the fruit.

History of zucchini

Originally from America, the zucchini was probably domesticated in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, about 9 000 or 10 000 years ago. At the whim of exchanges between the Amerindian peoples, it quickly spread northward, so at the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, its culture was widespread on the mainland.

It belongs to the same botanical species as pumpkin, at least some varieties, and the decorative squash, too bitter to be consumed. That is to say the important work selection which has been done on this species, over the millennia, to get a fruit as different from each other.

For a long time, the fruits of this species were grown either to serve as containers or for their nutritious seeds. It is only quite recently farmers have selected varieties grown for their immature fruit. The zucchini, which belongs to the so-called “marrow” squash subgroup, was probably selected by the peoples of southern Mexico, while the pattypan squash was made by those of the eastern United States.

More than any other, marrow squash has thrilled Europeans when they arrived in America. Over 400 years following its discovery, they selected hundreds of cultivars to achieve early flowering, compact plants and uniform fruit. The zucchini became therefore an essential part of the cuisine of southern Europe. The United States, China, the Middle East and South America have also produced cultivars adapted to their respective cuisine and climate.

Without being completely devoid of nutrients, summer squash is much less nutritious than winter squash because it is, on one hand, harvested very young and, on the other hand, their pale flesh does not possess the precious carotenoid pigments of summer squashes. Their interest lies in the fact they are available much earlier in the season. With their watery and refreshing flesh, they are also used for many culinary preparations.

Health profile

Zucchini and pattypan squash are part of the summer squash category. There are not many scientific studies on zucchini and very little on the pattypan squash. These two foods are still a source of several nutrients and contain some active compounds whose health effects remain to be confirmed.

Active ingredients and properties

Phenolic compounds. Several prospective and epidemiological studies have observed high consumption of vegetables and fruit decreases 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 phenolic compounds in vegetables and fruit could play a role in it. Phenolic compounds are substances present in foods of plant origin and can prevent certain diseases, especially because of their role as antioxidants. In one study, the squash and its seeds had content in phenolic compounds as well as a high antioxidant activity.

Rutin. Zucchini contains rutin, a phenolic compound of the family flavonoïdes. Rutin (which does not necessarily originate from the zucchini) would have some antioxidant activity in vitro and could, among other things, protect LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) against oxydation and delay this process. The oxidation of LDL cholesterol is known to cause atherosclerosis, a predisposing factor for cardiovascular disease. However, a study carried out among women did not show any change in the amount of antioxidants in the blood after a six-week supplementation in rutine. It is therefore difficult to make a clear conclusion as to the antioxidant potential of rutin or the consumption of zucchini among humans.

Carotenoids. Zucchini contains large amounts of lutein, but also zeaxanthin, two compounds of the family carotenoides. The pattypan squash, meanwhile, also contains these two carotenoids, but in lesser quantities (about four times less than the zucchini). Carotenoids can exert an antioxidant action, thus protecting the organism (and especially eye tissues) from the harmful effects of free radicals. Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the macula and retina of the eye, thus protecting it from oxidative stress which could cause damage. Some researchers have observed consumption of carotenoids could protect against certain eye diseases (such as cataracts and macular degeneration).

Baking and phenolic compounds

The consumption and proper absorption of phenolic compounds are necessary in order to benefit from their effects in an optimum way. It is interesting to know cooking zucchini in small quantities of water leads to lower losses in phenolic compounds than cooking in large water amounts. Even better, it is recommended to eat raw or lightly cooked.

Precautions

Zucchini, like other foods, can cause allergic reactions among certain people. The profilin is a compound implicated in the incidence of these reactions. Zucchini, cucumber, squash and pumpkin are similar species of cantaloupe and other melons, hence the existence of possible cross-reactions between these species. A person with an allergy to one of these foods could therefore also be allergic to another.

Zucchini is also an incriminating food in the oral allergy syndrome. This syndrome is an allergic reaction to certain proteins of a range of fruits, vegetables and nuts. It affects some people with allergies to pollen of the environment and is characterized by symptoms to the mouth and throat. This syndrome is almost always preceded by hay fever.

When some people allergic to ragweed consume raw zucchini (cooking usually degrades allergen proteins), an immunological reaction may occur. Local symptoms are confined to the mouth, lips and throat such as itching and burning sensations can then occur, and usually disappear for a few minutes after consuming or touching the implicated food. In the absence of other symptoms, this reaction is not serious and the consumption of zucchini does not have to be avoided systematically. However, it is recommended to consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions to plant foods. The latter will be able to assess whether special precautions should be taken.

Choice and conservation

Choice

Zucchini: farms, without marks or black spots and preferably small.

Pattypan squash: firm, without marks or stains, small if you want to consume them with the skin, bigger if you want to stuff them.

Preparation

It is better not to peel zucchini in order to preserve their nutrients. On the other hand, the skin of the pattypan squash becomes rapidly fibrous; only very young fruits can be consumed without being peeled.

Conservation

Refrigerator: unlike winter squash, harvested at full maturity, and whose skin is tougher and the flesh has less water, zucchini and pattypan squash do not keep long. Put them in a perforated plastic bag and keep them two or three days in the crisper (more mature fruits will keep longer). Wash them preferably just when they are ready.

Freezer: cut into slices or diced, blanch them and put them in freezer bags. They can also be incorporated into other dishes and will be frozen in an airtight container.

Dehydrator: cut the fruit into very thin slices and place in the dehydrator or in an oven set at very low temperature, leaving the door slightly open.

Organic gardening

Planting or transplanting the seedlings having been started three or four weeks before, after the last frozen days of spring (from early to mid-June). As the fruits will not be harvested at maturity, you will have the time, if desired, to make a second sowing in July.
Sow four or five seeds in small mounds preferably mounted in the previous fall and enriched with good manure or compost. The let’s will be spaced 1.5 m. When plants are well established, thinning to keep only the two or three stronger.

Irrigate as needed, especially when the plants are being planted.

The young fruits are tastier than the most mature. Check plants every day and harvest before they reach 5 cm in diameter and 15 cm to 20 cm long. The barely formed fruits, still attached to the flower, are considered as a fine product. You can just make them fry in a pan with a pinch of salt or serve them raw. The pattypan squash are harvested before the diameter reaches 8 cm or 10 cm. Cut the fruits with scissors or shears and make sure not to damage the still fragile skin of these immature fruits. In addition, in case of sensitivity, protect the hands and arms against the stems and leaves which are equipped with irritating quills.

Against the scratched rootworm of the cucumber, a pest insect, to protect with a fine mesh tissue, which will be removed at the time of flowering, plants needing bees for their pollination. At this point, they should be able to withstand insect attacks. However, in the event of severe infestation, especially at the time of flowering and fruit ripening, treat with rotenone.

Ecology and environment

In its number 2208, the New Scientist announced a Brazilian researcher had discovered by spraying fresh milk (diluted in a 9:1 ratio) on cucumber or zucchini leaves, some diseases, including powdery mildew, could be effectively combated. This mold, omnipresent in the gardens and cucurbits fields of middle to end of summer, covers the leaves of a white dust, preventing photosynthesis and, therefore, the good development of the fruit, which requires the producers to use chemical fungicides. It is not yet clear how milk works, but there are two causes: milk is known to destroy some micro-organisms and it contains potassium phosphate, a mineral which strengthens the immune system of plants.

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