Ah, summer. Those lazy days of picnics, long days at the beach, and … zucchini? That’s right. The hazy, crazy days of summer also belong to one of our favorite summer squashes. So if you love zucchini as much as we do and can’t wait to hit the farmers market and get to work on your newest zucchini recipe, come with us as we explore the history and health benefits of this super versatile green veggie.
A Short History of Zucchini
Like other squash, pumpkins, and gourds, zucchini, which is also sometimes known by its French name, courgette, belongs to the Cucurbitaceae, or gourd, family. Members of this group originated in Mesoamerica—a region that extends from approximately central Mexico to Costa Rica.
While zucchini has been enjoyed in the Americas for at least 7,000 years, the zucchini we’re familiar with today was developed in Italy in the 19th century and then brought back to the Americas by Italian immigrants.
And if you think the name zucchini sounds Italian, you’re right. The word actually comes from the Italian word zucchino, which means “small squash.”
Summer squash is differentiated from its cousin, the winter squash, by its summer harvest time. Harvesting the fruit during the summer means the plants are picked when they’re immature, their seeds are soft, and their skin is still thin and edible.
However, if zucchini is allowed to keep growing, it can reach over 3 feet in length—but it’d be so tough and fibrous you wouldn’t want to eat it.
Yellow Squash vs. Zucchini
People often get yellow squash and zucchini confused. After all, they can look a lot alike, especially when you’re comparing a yellow summer squash with a yellow zucchini.
But yellow squash tends to be fat on one end and tapered on the other, while zucchini is more cylindrical in shape—unless, that is, we’re talking about eight ball zucchini, which looks like a small, dark green pumpkin. Aside from yellow zucchini, most varieties of zucchini are varying shades of green.
Health Benefits of Zucchini
Like most fruits and vegetables, zucchini contains absolutely no saturated fat. It’s also low in calories and is a great source of fiber. And it contains a number of important minerals and vitamins, including potassium and manganese as well as riboflavin, folate, and vitamins A, B6, C, and K.
In addition, zucchini is a rich source of phytonutrients, including the carotenoids lutein, beta-carotene, and zeaxanthin, as well as dehydroascorbic acid—the active form of vitamin C.
The nutritional content of zucchini also means this summer squash packs quite a few health benefits.
Promotes Heart Health
Zucchini contains a soluble fiber called pectin that’s been linked in studies to improved cardiovascular health, due in large part to its positive effect on cholesterol. In fact, multiple studies have consistently found that 10 to 30 grams of soluble fiber, including pectin, may lower levels of LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad cholesterol) by up to 10%.
Zucchini’s high levels of water and fiber, along with its low calorie count, also make this summer squash a great addition to a healthy low-carb diet, which may help manage weight and reduce obesity—one of the main risk factors for heart disease.
What’s more, the potassium in zucchini relaxes blood vessels, which helps lower blood pressure, and its antioxidant-rich phytonutrients scavenge inflammation-inducing free radicals, which are linked to a greater risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease.
May Help Prevent Diabetes
Healthy dietary habits play a critical role in preventing type 2 diabetes. Zucchini is not only low in both carbohydrates and sugar, but also has a significant amount of fiber, which helps fill you up and keep you feeling fuller longer. And studies suggest that eating at least 30 grams of fiber a day helps promote healthy metabolism and weight, which can reduce the risk of diabetes.
May Improve Gut Health
Zucchini contains a number of nutrients that are crucial for gut health, and its fiber content helps feed the good bacteria that keep your gut healthy and immune system strong. What’s more, zucchini’s antioxidants help reduce the inflammation that can lead to problems in the GI tract, and its high water content makes the fruit easy to digest.
Supports Eye Health
Among the phytonutrients in zucchini are carotenoids that are known to protect the eyes from blue light, which can damage the retinas and lead to macular degeneration.
Toxic Squash Syndrome: Myth or Reality?
Along with other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, zucchini contains phytochemicals called cucurbitacins. These chemicals, whose bitter taste helps defend the plants from predation, occur in high amounts in wild members of the gourd family but have been mostly bred out in cultivated varieties.
However, cultivated plants are sometimes cross-pollinated by wild varieties, which causes them to take on the same high levels of these chemicals. And if these contaminated plants are then eaten, they can cause a condition known as toxic squash syndrome.
And toxic squash syndrome is no laughing matter. For starters, the condition causes signs of poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—and hair loss in at least two cases in France. But people have also been known to die after eating contaminated squash, melons, and other members of the gourd family.
So should you give up zucchini forever?
Of course not.
The great thing about cucurbitacins is that they’re extremely bitter, so as long as your zucchini has no bitter taste, you’re fine. But if you bite into one and it tastes like Tylenol, spit it out and throw it away.
Cooking with Zucchini
When it comes to versatility, few vegetables can compare with zucchini. Whether you desire an appetizer, side dish, main course, or dessert, zucchini has you covered.
Let’s say you have some fresh zucchini, but it’s a busy weeknight and you’re looking for an easy recipe with little prep time and almost no cook time. What do you do?
Simply grab your zucchini, slice it up, and throw it in a pan with some salt, black pepper, and olive oil. Or, if you want a truly southern take on things, switch the olive oil out for butter, sauté until tender, and spoon up for a yummy and satisfying side dish.
If grilling is more your style, zucchini can handle that too. Simply cut your zucchini slices lengthwise, brush with your choice of oil, and top with your favorite seasonings. Zucchini is such a—did we mention?—versatile plant that you’re really only limited by your imagination.
Another simple recipe that takes almost no total time at all is baked zucchini. Simply cut your zucchini into coins, combine with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and Italian seasoning, and top with Parmesan cheese.
Or how about a tasty garlic parmesan zucchini casserole? With a short prep time and mouthwatering mixture of garlic, Parmesan, mozzarella, and cheddar cheese, all topped with panko breadcrumbs, this recipe should be one your entire family enjoys.
And if you’re hankering for something a bit different, you can tweak your casserole by adding tomato sauce and layering, just as you would eggplant Parmesan.
But there’s so much more you can do with zucchini. For example, there’s fried zucchini, zucchini fritters, and zucchini noodles, or zoodles. For the vegan in the family, there’s even pasta with zucchini and cashew cheese.
And for breakfast, dessert, and everything in between, there are zucchini muffins and zucchini brownies, or even that tried and true favorite, zucchini bread.
So whether you’re cooking with zucchini for the first time or you’re trying out the latest appetizer, side dish, main course, or dessert recipe, it’s never too late to get cooking while giving thanks for this versatile and healthy summer squash.