Pumpkins support good health…and not just at Halloween

You may enjoy carving a scary face into your jack-o-lantern pumpkin, but there’s nothing scary about the health and nutritional benefits of this seasonal favorite.

Of course, pumpkins belong to the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, along with cucumber, squash, and zucchini. (In fact, I found a remarkable, natural, no-calorie sweetener in a member of this versatile family from tropical China and Southeast Asia called lo han guo.)

The pumpkin is a vining squash, originating from North America. But its name comes from the Greek word pepon, for large melon. Its seeds have been found dating back thousands of years in Mesoamerica, or modern-day Mexico. Native Americans used pumpkin flesh, flowers, and seeds as both foods and medicines.

Native Americans planted pumpkins and squash together with corn and beans, calling them “The Three Sisters.” All three together supplied calories, proteins, carotenoids, vitamin A, minerals, and other nutrients. The cornstalks grew tall, providing stalks or bean poles for the beans to climb. The vines of squash and pumpkin grew in the shade along the ground.

When seeing acres of pumpkin planted out in the open today, you may be surprised to learn that pumpkins actually like the shade. During the hot summer, the leaves grow large in the sun, carrying out photosynthesis and nourishing the blossoms and young fruits, while the small blossoms and fruits shelter under the shade of the large leaves.

Pumpkins and squash are monoecious plants, having both male and female flowers on the same vine. The flowers with little fruits growing at their base are the females.

By the time the pumpkins get big enough to grow out from under the leaves, the weather has cooled and heat can no longer damage them. Bees also love the flowers for their pollen and making “squash blossom” honey.

Pumpkin sustained the indigenous peoples of North America through the cold winter months. And European settlers in North America quickly learned to use pumpkin as well. It is said Europeans made the first pumpkin “pie” by removing the seeds and filling the shell with cream, eggs, honey, and spices. Then, they buried it in the hot coals of a fire to bake.

Pumpkin seeds are low in fat and high in protein, linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid), and bioavailable minerals. The flesh contains lots of natural beta-carotene, an antioxidant and metabolic precursor of vitamin A, as well as other vitamin and mineral micronutrients.

Pumpkin also has a long history of use in traditional medicine. Practitioners use it to treat rheumatism, swelling, urinary conditions, and intestinal parasites. Science shows pumpkin and pumpkin seed extracts and oils have anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.

So — while making colorfully carved jack-o-lanterns this weekend, consider cooking the flesh for your own pie filling. Roast the seeds as a great, tasty, natural source of essential fatty acids and minerals.

When I was young, you could find pumpkins and gourds in stores all the way through Thanksgiving. But years ago, I started to notice they began disappearing from grocery stores, markets and roadside stands the day before Halloween. So make sure to stock up today and this weekend. They will last you through Thanksgiving and the winter.

For more information about the health benefits of pumpkin and pumpkin seeds, please see this month’s issue of the Insiders’ Cures. (If you’re not already a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.)