Eat Real Pumpkin, Not Just Its Halo Effect

September 15, 2015 in Antioxidants, Foodland, Health Claims, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Last week when I wrote about the “Blue Zones” – the longevity zones of earth, I mentioned that I usually am writing something about the harvest this time of year. Yes, last week’s article did talk about produce. But this week, I couldn’t resist any longer. Technically today’s subject, pumpkin is a fruit (develops from a flower and contains seeds), though we generally consider it a vegetable. Either way, it is something extra special in the autumn harvest of produce.

The Washington Post published an article by Drew Harwell called: It’s not just lattes: How pumpkin took over cat food, cheese, vodka and everything else on September 3, 2015. Harwell tells the tale of the humble pumpkin’s rise to that of an ‘unstoppable financial juggernaut.’ He says that it started in craft beers and pie fillings; but its ascendency to the pinnacle of high-selling seasonal staples didn’t happen until the Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte became the “most popular seasonal beverage of all time,” during the past five years.

Harwell says, “Pumpkin-flavored Everything Makers of pumpkin-flavored goodies prove they’re more moneymaker than joke.” Everyone (well, it seems like almost everyone) is making pumpkin offerings (Planter’s, Pumpkin Spice Almonds; Pringles, potato crisps; Yoplait’s, pumpkin seeds. He says that one in ten nationwide eateries now has pumpkin somewhere on its menu. And it doesn’t stop with people food; Petco’s Harvest Sunrise Chicken & Pumpkin cat food and Weruva’s pumpkin-flavored kibble (to keep the flatulence down in dogs.) It’s even being used in shampoo and conditioners.

Harwell quotes New York Magazine in 2012, saying: “The weird thing about pumpkin’s rise to bacon-like ubiquity, is that pumpkin, on its own, is not a very appetizing food at all.” Genuine raw real pumpkin, according to the Nielsen data and reported by Harwell is selling worse and worse ever year since 2010. Why eat real pumpkin if you can get it in your latte, hey? Well stayed tuned; I have an answer. This concept of just selling the taste and not the nutritious meat itself is what drew me to his article. Yes, I’m very familiar with pumpkin’s dense, often stringy attributes. But his surprise of it becoming so popular is not as surprising to me. Let’s face it; pumpkin is one of the super cheap foods – super because of its nutrients, and cheap per oz. What could make a food processor happier than to strike it BIG on a super cheap food? Add to the cheap REAL pumpkin puree (no longer caramel coloring and pumpkin spices flavored sauce) with such additional cheap ingredients as sugar, a little spice and now you can sell a couple cups of Joe (12 ounces) for $2.85, and they only cost you something like $0.25 per cup.

One of the considerations in why pumpkins have hit it BIG is that there’s a considerable ‘halo effect.’ That is, the nutrients in pumpkin give to whatever processed food it’s added, the great health benefits of pumpkin, a winter squash. At least these health benefits are perceived in the mind of the consumer. One of the big questions about the American public is: Do they like pumpkin the vegetable (or fruit), or just pumpkin the marketed concept and the flavoring? In spite of the impressive rise in pumpkins in lattes; cookies, candies, cheese, tortilla chips, vodka, soy milk, coffees and beers, the per capita pumpkin consumption has barely budged over the past 20 years; according to USDA data, it has actually regressed by about 1½ pounds per person since 1998. This would suggest marketed concept is increasingly leaving actual pumpkin out of the food.

By now (if you read this blog frequently), you realize that I’m not going to rattle off all the nutrients in a food to convince you of how nutritious it is. I consider that nutritionism an evil tool for unscrupulous marketing (see Using a Single Player, instead of the Entire Team. It is not enough to say this nutrient does this and that nutrient does that. I will only name a few nutrients to help you realize that including real pumpkin in your menus, in a real serving amount, is a good idea. Carotenoids are an important component of pumpkins (and other orange fleshed squash – think butternut, banana squash, Hubbard, acorn and the numerous others that flood the farmers’ markets this time of year. The marker nutrient is vitamin A; an average one-cup of raw cubed pumpkin yields about 197% of the daily needs of a person on a 2000-calorie a day intake. So you see, it doesn’t take a pot full of pumpkin to get some significant benefit. It’s not just beta-carotene, but there are many different carotenoids and they accomplish many different functions in keeping our cells, and thus, our bodies healthy. Realize that 197% number is just one cup of cubes – raw. You get quite a bit more nutrients per ounce when it’s cooked and/or pureed. Pumpkin is loaded with phytonutrients too. These also translate to keeping our cells healthy. Pumpkin is not just carotenoids and phytonutrients, but also it has a nice supply of vitamin C, protein, complex carbohydrate, potassium and other minerals, and fiber; all for only 30 calories for the 3-ounce cup of raw pumpkin cubes.

If you’re imagining getting your pumpkin intake in a pumpkin flavored candy or a latte, you have been tricked by marketing hype. Maybe you want to cash in on some real and significant benefits. Now, what can you do to get some real benefit from this remarkable yet inexpensive ingredient? First know that it has a very mild flavor; so what you put it with matters. All the spices that are in pumpkin pie filling and other pumpkin containing foods are there to pop the taste up. It’s nice in stir-fry; in soups and stews, in addition to cookies, quick breads, muffins and custards. You can use it in oatmeal or other hot cereals; add some cinnamon and sweetener. One thing you can use pumpkin puree for is to replace some of the oil in quick breads and muffins. Maybe consider adding it to your pasta sauce or hummus. There are pages of ideas for cooking pumpkin in our past blogs. The easiest way to prepare a fresh pumpkin is to vent it (poke some holes so it won’t explode) and roast it whole in the oven on a foil-lined pan – no struggle cutting a hard, uncooked pumpkin. The plain and humble pumpkin gets downright exciting if you let your creativity run a little wild. Low calories, plus high in nutrients, why not introduce it as something good, whole, real, into your family fare? Use spices as in the marketed tastes, but keep the real pumpkin in for your body’s sake.