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Nature's Broom And Other Health Benefits Of Pumpkin

Pumpkin latte, Pumpkin stuffed w/meat & vegetables, Pumpkin tartlet, Pumpkin soup and Pumpkin puree

It's often used as a major ingredient in sweets: desserts, lattes, even ale. But put all the sugar and cream aside, and pumpkin can also be a healthy food choice. 

Highlights of the interview with Katherine Nashatker, Diabetes Education Coordinator with Parkland Hospital System:

What’s with the new interest in pumpkin? "I think that pumpkin’s been around, but when we re-energize it with new flavors in a new way, it kind of gets in folks’ mind. It’s such a versatile Fall vegetable, we’re trying to incorporate it into our diet."

How healthful is pumpkin? "It’s a great source of fiber. It also has beta-carotene in it. It’s kind of like a precursor for vitamin A. Vitamin A is really necessary for us to have healthy eyes, a healthy functioning immune system. Also, it has a lot of fiber. We’re able to eat fiber and excrete a lot of the cholesterol that we eat, and so it’s almost like nature’s broom.”

What are some interesting ways to use pumpkin beyond desserts? "You could put pumpkin with a little coconut milk, and protein powder, mix it up, and get yourself a nice smoothie. Put it into existing muffin recipes as a substitute for some of the oil just to cut back on some of the fat that add flavor and moisture. You could put it as a filler for risotto and some of the pasta dishes just to give it a bit of flavor and thickness to it."

One of the nutritional benefits, the pumpkin seed? "The pumpkin seed contains plant sterols. Those are naturally present in plant foods and they block cholesterol much like fiber does. So, often times we’ll see it fortified in products throughout the grocery store like orange juice or granola bars, but really to get the benefit you have to eat these foods three, four times a day, consistently, to get a lowering effect on your LDL. But it is a natural way to get those components into your diet. So, roasting the seeds, put a little olive oil, put them in the oven. Using spices, cumin or chili powder or oregano, and shaking a little bit of parmesan cheese on them on the top is a great way to enjoy them.”

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Why have we been so slow to get to these uses of pumpkin beyond dessert? "I think because it takes a little bit of work. For example, if I want to roast my pumpkin, I have to take my pumpkin and slice it up into three-inch portions, put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 50 minutes before I can cube it, and do what I want with those cubes. Some people puree the pumpkin. Some people just eat them roast it that way, leaving the fleshy part behind. But it requires just a little bit of prep and I think we tend to grab things that are grab-and-go, rather than the prep vegetables."

If there any health benefit to what is sold in the can?  "Yes. You still get all the nutrients we described – vitamin A, etc. Probably won’t have much ability to use it in more whole food recipes. It would have to be something that needs to be pureed like a soup or a risotto or a filler. What I would caution folks from doing is only using the canned pumpkin for pies or desserts and adding fat and sugar to them.”

Are there many varieties of pumpkin? "There are different types of pumpkin and the ones that we typically eat are not those miniature pumpkins that we see that are decorated throughout on table tops. It’s the sugar pumpkins, the ones that you can carve are going to be the one you can cook. The pumpkin kind you carve is edible. You would set aside the stringy part, and the seeds you could rinse and roast, but the fleshy part of that pumpkin, you absolutely could consume."

Reducing fat and calories in pumpkin desserts: "I think I would focus on the amount of pumpkin that I used, along with the pumpkin spices, whether it’s allspice or cinnamon. Going a little heavier on flavor with spices that don’t have any calories and cutting back on the brown sugar, on the margarine, on the butter, or on the cream."

For more information:

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.