Colorful trees, a refreshing breeze, and crisp autumn leaves mean that Halloween season is officially upon us. It’s time to costume shop, decorate the yard, and—of course—visit the pumpkin patch.
As you prepare to carve those spooky Jack-o’-Lanterns, you’ll have to scoop out the innards of your carefully selected fruit—but be sure to pause before you ditch the seeds! Pepitas—“little seeds of squash”—are loaded with body-benefitting nutrients. And the rest of the pumpkin guts? Well, those aren’t half bad either.
Picking out pumpkins is a process; most of us look for the brightest, roundest, cleanest orange spheres on the lot. But pumpkins didn’t always look this way. In fact, the first pumpkins were actually believed to be more like the crook-necked variety (the ones that resemble those c-shaped neck pillows).
Archeologists have determined that the fruit was farmed with sunflowers and beans along river and creek banks near small North and Central American settlements. Pottery representing different varieties of pumpkins and squash indicated that they had existed for thousands of years—the first pumpkin-related seeds, found in Mexico, dated between 7000 and 5500 BC.
Prior to the arrival of European explorers, Native Americans used pumpkins as a food source. The sweet flesh was used in many ways: It was roasted, baked, parched, boiled, and dried. The seeds were used as medicine (for intestinal parasites, among other ailments), the blossoms added to stews, and the dried fruit was stored and ground into flour. When the shells were dried, they served as bowls and containers for grains, beans, and seeds. Strips were roasted over campfires, and the dried result was either eaten or woven into mats for trade purposes.
The pumpkin promised a few new uses after the pilgrims took root. Pumpkin beer was created from a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar, and pumpkin. The shells were used as a template for haircuts to ensure a round and uniform cut, a practice that resulted in the New Englander nickname “pumpkinhead.” And pumpkin pie wasn’t exactly like it tastes today, either: After removing the seeds, the inside of the pumpkin was filled with milk, spices, and honey, then baked in hot ashes.
We all know raw nuts and seeds are good for our health when eaten in moderation—a handful every day is a good portion guide. For an alternative to your go-to nut, try roasting your pumpkin seeds this season. Snack on them raw, or add a scoop to soups, salads, cereals, or casseroles. Then watch (and feel!) as your body basks in the benefits.
Supports healthy blood pressure, the creation of the energy molecule ATP, bone and tooth formation, proper heart pumping, and numerous other functions. About 80 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient, but just a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains nearly half the recommended daily amount of this important mineral.
Helps the body fight diseases and heal wounds, regulates mood and sleep, contributes to senses of taste and smell, and supports eye and skin health, among other benefits. Many foods rich in zinc also contain saturated fat, but pepitas offer a healthier way to access the antioxidant.
Healthy fats, antioxidants, protein, and fiber
Pepitas are truly an all-in-one snack when it comes to nutrition. When mixed with flax seeds, in particular, pepitas provide excellent heart and liver benefits—so if you’re into DIY trail mix, be sure to include both seeds in your recipe.
Commonly found in carb-heavy holiday meals (Thanksgiving dinner, you know what I’m talking about), this amino acid helps promote sleep by creating serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood, empathetic perception, appetite, and sleep. Pumpkin seeds have a relatively high amount of tryptophan, so a handful before bed may contribute to more peaceful rest.
Studies suggest the natural phytoestrogens found in pumpkin seed oil may help reduce the risk for breast cancer, as well as lead to decreases in hot flashes, headaches, joint pain, and other menopausal symptoms. Roasting the seeds at low temperatures helps better preserve this oil.
Don’t chuck ‘em just yet—pumpkin guts might look intimidating, but that slimy orange goop is actually full of important vitamins and minerals. Use it in pie, bread, or other baked goods. Make pumpkin butter. Blend it into a smoothie. However you choose to do it, there are plenty of ways to add the fruit to your seasonal dishes—and plenty of reasons why you should.
Supports eye, lung, and skin health. Pumpkins get their color from beta-carotene—a plant pigment also found in rosy foods such as tomatoes and carrots—which most people are able to convert to vitamin A.
These include vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B9 (folate), and more—they help with everything from joint pain to brain function to reproductive health. These vitamins all work together to promote a healthy body.
Important for growth and cellular reproduction, this mineral helps break down nutrients (thus releasing energy) stored inside the food we eat. It’s also important for strong bones and teeth, and—bonus!—phosphorus helps the body better absorb B vitamins.
Helps keep cells, tissues, and organs functioning properly. Most notably, this electrolyte supports normal blood pressure and kidney, bone, and heart health. Eating more potassium is also one way to counterbalance sodium—potassium helps the body get rid of excess sodium.
Favorite Way to Enjoy Pumpkin
So, you’ve seeded and gutted your pumpkin—now what? You can easily add pumpkin to most dishes, but a quick and tasty way to enjoy the seeds is to roast them. First, boil your seeds in water for about 10 minutes, drain, and pat dry with paper towels—this helps produce crispier seeds when roasting. Next, toss seeds with a healthy oil—such as coconut or olive oil—then sprinkle with your choice of seasoning. Plain ol’ salt and pepper works just fine, or you can create your own combination of herbs and spices. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet, place them in the oven at 325 degrees, and roast for about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through and checking to make sure they don’t burn.
Try these seasoning combinations for a sweet and spicy snack:
>> Garlic powder, salt, crushed red pepper, and black pepper
>> Garlic salt, cumin, coriander, and cardamom
>> Ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and palm sugar
>> Palm sugar, ginger, and orange zest
Feeling inspired to make pepitas your new favorite treat? When choosing your pumpkins this season, don’t be too picky—after all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
By Erica Tasto