You know it’s fall when: crunchy leaves litter sidewalks and streets, the air turns crisp, and everything has the word pumpkin in front of it. From pumpkin beer to pumpkin spice lattes and, as of recently, even pumpkin-flavored whiskey and pumpkin spice M&Ms (!), this flavor is everywhere these days.
But many of these seasonal treats are packed with artificial flavors and lots of sugar (and, in some cases, no pumpkin at all), so why not go for the real thing? Pumpkins are good for more than just for jack-o-lanterns. These vegetables of the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family are packed with a host of important nutrients—not to mention delicious.
One cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin contains more than twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin A and is fat free and cholesterol free. Pumpkin is a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. Replacing some or all of the butter or eggs in baking recipes with mashed or pureed pumpkin also slashes the fat, calories, and cholesterol while adding nutrients.
And don’t throw out the seeds—these little powerhouses are loaded with zinc, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium, and there is evidence suggesting that the vitamin E in pumpkin seeds is more easily absorbed by the body (that is, more bioavailable) than the form of this nutrient found in other foods. They’re most nutritious when kept in their shell, and they’re delicious when lightly roasted on an unoiled baking sheet.
Unlike pumpkin beers and pumpkin spice lattes, you can enjoy the real thing all year round. Once farmers’ markets have shuttered for the year, look for canned pureed pumpkin in the supermarket; it’s usually found with other canned vegetables, but sometimes stocked among baking supplies (just make sure you don’t grab pumpkin pie filling by mistake!) and use it in your favorite recipes, like this warming heart-healthy pumpkin soup.