The sun is setting lower on the horizon, the kids are back in school, leaves are falling, and grocery store shelves are packed with pumpkin spice this and pumpkin spice that. Which can mean only one thing… It’s officially pumpkin season! And its arrival, along with the arrival of other iconic fall favorites, like apples, butternut squash, and cranberries, has us looking forward to jack-o’-lanterns (for what is Halloween without carving a pumpkin or maybe even visiting a real pumpkin patch?), hot apple cider—or the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte—and cozy evenings spent next to the fire in the company of family and friends.
Yes, when nature made this most versatile of fruits, she went all out.
But they’re not only fun to carve and eat in pumpkin pie. Pumpkins are also luscious in cakes and cookies and scrumptious in soups, stews, and pretty much everything else you can imagine.
And they’re absolutely loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants!
So let’s dig into this special fall treat and give you a million and one (well, maybe not that many) reasons to celebrate pumpkin season.
What’s in a Name?
Pumpkins, squash, and gourds all belong to the genus Cucurbita, which is, incidentally, Latin for gourd. The words pumpkin, squash, and gourd are also often used interchangeably. But the truth is that pumpkins, squash, and gourds get their names based on a number of different characteristics, including species, variety, seed type, and local usage.
However, when it comes to pumpkins, they’re generally considered a type of winter squash—a group that includes several different species, some of which are also known as pumpkins, depending on whom you ask.
All this makes for some really confusing nomenclature, but one thing’s for certain: pumpkins are some of the most versatile fruits, or squash, or gourds on the planet, which may be one reason why they have so many different names.
They’re also packed with nutrition, which makes them both good to eat and good for you.
Pumpkin Health Benefits
Pumpkin is a high-fiber, low-calorie food that’s also extremely low in both sodium and fat. Pumpkin also boasts a healthy supply of riboflavin, potassium, copper, and manganese, and it’s loaded with free radical–scavenging antioxidants, including vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K, and vitamin E.
It’s the carotenoids in pumpkin that give it its characteristic orange color. And these antioxidants have been shown in many studies to help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
What’s more, pumpkin is one of the best sources of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been linked to a lower risk of macular degeneration.
Nutrient-dense foods like pumpkin can also contribute to healthy weight loss, which may aid in the prevention of obesity and related health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
So if you’re wondering how you can incorporate more of this delicious and healthy fall treat into the perfect pumpkin recipe, why not start with a few of our favorites, like:
- Cheese ravioli with pumpkin Alfredo sauce
- Spicy pumpkin chili
- Harvest pumpkin soup
- Baked Parmesan pumpkin fries
- Iced pumpkin cookies
- Dark chocolate pumpkin smoothie
Another wonderful thing about pumpkin is that it usually doesn’t matter whether you use fresh or canned pumpkin or even your own homemade pumpkin puree because pumpkin recipes tend to be incredibly versatile and forgiving. So feel free to experiment!
Pumpkin Seeds vs. Pepitas
When we’re talking about pumpkins, we can’t forget to give a shout out to the lowly pumpkin seeds, or pepitas.
But we first need to point out that there’s a bit of a difference between the pumpkin seeds we scoop out of whole pumpkins on their way to becoming jack-o’-lanterns and the pepitas we spend a pretty penny on at the store. In fact, it’s probably more correct to say that all pepitas are pumpkin seeds, but not all pumpkin seeds are pepitas.
The word pepita is Spanish for “little seed of squash,” but pepitas come from pumpkin varieties whose seeds have no shells. So, as for our Halloween pumpkin seeds, while it’s possible to shell them using a somewhat laborious process, they’re not quite the same thing as the plump, green pepitas most of us are familiar with, though you’re still probably going to see pepitas labeled as pumpkin seeds when you buy them.
But considering the confusing distinction between pumpkins, squash, and gourds, why should a little overlap between pumpkin seeds and pepitas be surprising?
Pumpkin Seed Health Benefits
Like their parent plant, pumpkin seeds are packed with nutritious goodness. They’re high in protein, healthy fats, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, and antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin K, and carotenoids.
Pumpkin seeds have also been found in studies to reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, and symptoms of overactive bladder and enlarged prostate, and they may even help prevent lung, colon, breast, prostate, and stomach cancers.
Moreover, pumpkin seeds are a natural source of the amino acid tryptophan, which plays a role in ensuring sound sleep and reducing episodes of insomnia.
Their relatively large amount of protein and healthy fats also means that a handful of pumpkin seeds can be a great post-workout snack. In addition, pumpkin seeds can be used in place of other seeds or nuts in a variety of recipes.
And, raw or toasted, pumpkin season’s plethora of pepitas (say that three times fast) can be ground into a paste and used as a substitute for tahini in hummus or even added to a rich mole sauce.
Pepitas can also be sprinkled on top of yogurt or salads or included in homemade trail mix. And with their size and crunch, pumpkin seeds can even be used in place of pine nuts in Italian recipes.
Some especially tasty recipe ideas include:
- Seedy cherry-quinoa bars
- Overnight oats with cashews, seeds, and turmeric
- Cauliflower couscous with fresh herbs and grilled pumpkin seeds
- Pumpkin seed pesto
Prepare for Next Pumpkin Season—Grow Your Own Pumpkins!
If pumpkin season feels too short and you just can’t get enough, why not resolve to grow your own pumpkins? Pumpkins are some of the easiest plants to grow, and with a variety to choose from, chances are you’ll have no trouble finding the type that best suits your location, no matter where you are in the United States.
And if you’re an apartment dweller and think you’re out of luck, take heart. Because pumpkins even grow well in containers, so all you really need is a location that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight every day.
You can practice vertical gardening, too, which makes good use of limited space and has the added benefit of moving the plants farther away from potential predators and increasing air circulation, which can limit disease.
However, the time you choose to plant your seeds will depend on the variety and your location. Believe it or not, pumpkin season may occur in the fall, but pumpkin plants hate cold weather. So be sure to choose a variety that will mature during your location’s growing season—and always plant after the last danger of frost has passed.
Whether you choose to grow your own or prefer to stick to the canned variety, pumpkin is a superfood that can boost your immune system, protect your eyesight, and help shield you from many health conditions associated with the typical American diet.
So when that time of year rolls around and pumpkin season is again upon us, why not get a little adventurous and add some extra pumpkin to your life? After all, it’s not just for carving!