Pumpkin: Doing More With This Winter Squash

Pumpkin isn't just for pie anymore! Here, all you need to know about this versatile winter squash and some ideas for how to incorporate it into a diabetes-friendly diet.

Kids in Pumpkin PatchMy three girls on our annual outing to the local pumpkin farm!

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but “pumpkin” has become synonymous with “autumn” in America. There’s no doubt that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte has fed the fall pumpkin hype in the past two decades!  However, pumpkins have long been an American tradition since Colonial times and continue to be part of America’s dynamic food culture. 

Brief History of Pumpkins
Pumpkins are thought to have originated in North America. But the name “pumpkin” seems to have changed and evolved over many years, sort of like an International game of telephone!

  1. The name pumpkin originates from “pepon,” which is the Greek word for “large melon.”
  2. The French pronunciation of “pepon” sounded more like a nasaly “pompon.”
  3. The English then changed “pompon” to “pumpion.”
  4. Finally, American colonists changed “pumpion” into “pumpkin,” as we know it today.

Ways to Eat Pumpkin

The earliest pumpkin pie may have been created by American settlers who filled a hollow pumpkin with a mixture of milk, sugar, spices and honey and cooked it over a fire. Until more recently, Americans often limited pumpkin consumption to pies consumed around Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, pumpkin is very versatile in recipes. In fact, the pulp, seeds and flowers are all edible. 

  • Beyond pie, the pulp can be used in soups, pasta dishes, oatmeal, puddings, custards, condiments (pumpkin butter) and of course other baked goods. Pumpkin is even used in beer and dog food.
  • The seeds are delicious toasted with olive oil and salt, or can be flavored with many different spices and seasonings like cinnamon, garlic, parmesan cheese, or curry powder.
  • The flowers are much like zucchini squash flowers, which can be stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and lightly pan-fried for a delicious Italian-inspired appetizer.

Canned “Pumpkin”

Pumpkin is so versatile in part because canning makes the pureed pulp so convenient and readily available. Illinois farms produce 90% of the canned pumpkin in America. And although people seem to either love pumpkin or hate it, Americans sure do demand a lot of pumpkin. In 2017, Illinois farms produced 644 million pounds of ornamental and processing pumpkins.

Pumpkin can often be interchanged with other winter squash (like butternut or acorn squash) or even sweet potato in many recipes, but then again—nothing beats the convenience of canned pumpkin!

Pumpkin Nutrition

The pumpkin is in the same botanical family as cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew melon, and zucchini. It is actually a fruit, although it is lower in carbohydrate than most fruits, yet higher in carbohydrate than most non-starchy vegetables. As with most plant foods, pumpkin provides fiber and is low in sodium and contains no cholesterol. Pumpkin also contains minimal fat and protein.

Pumpkin is a very good source of beta-carotene, which is the pigment that makes pumpkins orange. Beta-carotene is a plant-based carotenoid and antioxidant that is converted by the body into vitamin A (retinol). Vitamin A is an essential nutrient in the body; it is important for skin, immunity, and eye health. It is best to meet your vitamin A requirements with food sources of beta carotene because there is no way to consume too much. However, it is possible to consume toxic amounts of vitamin A supplements if taken in excess.

Something else to keep in mind, some winter squashes—including pumpkin— are starchy like potatoes and corn making their carbohydrate content higher than other winter squashes and green veggies like broccoli. The vitamins and high fiber content makes up for a lot though so go ahead and dig in to pumpkin. 

Nutrition in a ½ cup serving of pumpkin puree

  • Calories:  50
  • Carbohydrates: 10 g
  • Fiber:  4 g
  • Sugar:  5 g
  • Protein: 1 g
  • Fat:  0.5 g
  • Sodium: 5 mg
  • Vitamin A: 500 mcg RAE

Be Picky About Pumpkin Products

Look around—in the case of pumpkin foods, everywhere you turn in the grocery stores you can see that food manufacturers are getting in on the pumpkin craze!  However, eating too many processed foods makes it hard to manage your diabetes. While dietitians usually like to encourage people to expand their eating repertoire, when it comes to processed foods, I recommend being picky about pumpkin products! 

So, when considering store-bought pumpkin products, consider these questions:

1. Does it taste fake or like real pumpkin?
For me, this is a deal breaker. If a pumpkin product tastes fake (or is likely to taste fake) and is an unnaturally bright orange color, I can usually pass it up and find something else to satisfy my hankering for pumpkin. Of course, we all have different tastes and likes, so move onto question #3 if there are some products you enjoy and want to experience.

2. Does it contain real food (real pumpkin)?
There are a few products out there that contain real pumpkin. One of my favorites is pumpkin yogurt (such as Target’s brand, or Noosa brand), which contains real pumpkin and of course beneficial yogurt. There is added sugar in yogurt, but I figure that’s okay as an occasional seasonal treat because there are redeeming qualities from the real pumpkin and especially the yogurt (protein, calcium, and probiotics). 

3. If it’s not real pumpkin, how can I make it a better choice?
Of course, even when products don’t contain real pumpkin (or other redeeming qualities), you may want to try it! So, in these cases, I consider how I might improve the choice.

In the case of a pumpkin spice latte, which I enjoy once or twice during the holiday season, I ask for one “pump” of syrup in a tall size latte as opposed to the three that are usually used.

If it’s a baked good, I generally try to make my own version once or twice during the season using less sugar and whole wheat flour for more fiber.

If you decide you really want to eat a prepared pumpkin product, eating a small portion and sharing the rest can help minimize the effects on your blood sugar.

Healthier Homemade Pumpkin Recipes

Even when you’re trying to limit processed foods, there are many healthier from-scratch or minimally processed ways to enjoy the seasonal taste of pumpkin! 

Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Easy Vegan Pumpkin Spice Oats

Pumpkin Muffins

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin Cookie Bars

And finally, my recipe for delicious Roasted Pumpkin:

Roasted Pumpkin Recipe

  • 1 pie pumpkin (usually between 3 and 8 pounds)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt/pepper to taste

Cut a circle around the stem in the top of the pumpkin to remove it and scrape out seeds just like you'd do to carve it for Halloween. Slice into pieces and place on a jelly roll pan. Brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper (omit pepper if using in a sweet recipe). Roast at 400 for 35 to 40 minutes, until tender. Remove skin; cube, mash or puree the pulp, depending on desired texture.

*A pound of pumpkin makes about 1 cup of mashed or pureed pumpkin.

Updated on: November 29, 2018
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