By Dom Castaldo, Ph.D.
Special to The Rock River Times
During the next few weeks, people throughout northern Illinois will be hacking into pumpkins in an effort to carve the scariest pumpkin in the neighborhood. But, before they can get to the creative stage, they must scoop out all of the seeds from inside the pumpkin. In most cases, the seeds will be tossed into the trash or dumped on the compost pile in the garden.
However, Illinois pumpkin carvers should reconsider discarding those seeds. Pumpkin seeds are a tasty, nutrient-dense food, with very few negative features. Pumpkin seeds have a dense concentration of important nutrients, such as vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, manganese, copper, tryptophan and glutamic acid. In addition, pumpkin seeds contain phytochemicals that prevent diabetes-related kidney damage.
Approximately 8 percent of Americans are allergic to some type of food. However, allergic reactions to pumpkin seeds are rare.
Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are a truly American vegetable. Historians believe people living in North America and South America grew pumpkins long before European explorers arrived on the continents. Native Americans grew pumpkins because pumpkin flesh had a desirable taste and was versatile and easy to prepare for eating; it could be roasted and eaten, or added to stew. Some Native Americans believed pumpkin possessed medicinal properties. Compounds in pumpkin kill intestinal parasites and promote wound healing. Pumpkin seeds are used as a mild diuretic, increasing urine production in patients.
A typical large pumpkin contains approximately 500 seeds. Giant varieties — which can reach weights greater than 1,200 pounds — produce 800 seeds per pumpkin. The pumpkin seed shell is usually cream-colored and the kernel is olive green.
Pumpkin seeds posses a nutrient profile that, in some cases, is more desirable than the profiles of other foods. Pumpkin seed kernels have fewer calories than either peanuts or sunflowers. Pumpkin seeds also have a higher average protein content than peanuts or sunflower seed kernels. The protein fraction of pumpkin seeds contains a high proportion of the amino acids tryptophan and glutamic acid. The body synthesizes the vitamin niacin from tryptophan. Glutamic acid is a precursor of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), a compound that is thought to reduce anxiety and irritability.
Pumpkin seed kernels hold a relatively high fat content — nearly 50 percent. In some processing systems, the fat — or oil — is extracted from the pumpkin seeds and used in other foods, such as salad dressing. A high proportion of pumpkin seed oil is oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fatty acid that has been reported to lower the concentration of cholesterol-containing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood and to raise the concentration of beneficial high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
The fat fraction of pumpkin seeds contains large amounts of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The body converts ALA to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, typically found in cold-water fish such as salmon, prevent strokes, heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
Pumpkin seed kernels have slightly less fiber than either peanuts or sunflower kernels. A growing number of consumers prefer foods with higher fiber contents. Dietary fiber has several health benefits.
According to many nutritionists, pumpkin seeds are excellent sources of copper, manganese and zinc. Copper plays a major role in wound healing. Manganese is a critical co-factor in the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase. The immune system requires zinc for optimum function. Pumpkin seeds contain selenium, a mineral that the body uses to detoxify oxidants and cancer-causing compounds. However, the selenium content of the soil has a major effect on the selenium content of the pumpkin seeds. Therefore, the selenium content of pumpkin seeds can vary widely between sources.
Besides providing essential nutrients, pumpkin seeds have other health benefits. Phytoestrogens in pumpkin seeds may reduce hot flashes, headaches and other symptoms in post-menopausal women. Compounds in pumpkin seeds may inhibit inflammation. This could benefit people suffering from arthritis.
Pumpkin seeds are good sources of B-vitamin such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine and folic acid. Cold temperatures often increase the requirement for these vitamins.
Preparing pumpkin seeds for a snack is simple. Some people cut the top off a pumpkin to obtain the seeds. Others split the pumpkin from the top (stem) to the bottom. When removing the seeds from the pumpkin, discard as much as the stringy flesh as possible.
Soak the seeds in a bowl of cold salt water. This will free any remaining membranes from the seeds. Grease a cookie sheet with olive oil or other type of vegetable oil. Next, drain the seeds and spread them evenly on the greased cookie sheet. Dust the pumpkin seeds with salt, garlic powder or other spices as desired.
Bake the pumpkin seeds in a conventional oven at 350 degrees for approximately 10 minutes. Store the roasted pumpkin seeds in an air-tight container.
The kernels can be removed from the shell and eaten as a “nutty” flavored snack, or can be used to top desserts such as pie or other foods, such as baked chicken or pork.
Big pumpkins get bigger
Some varieties of pumpkins — such as the Atlantic Giant and the Goliath Giant — produce very large fruits, many in excess of 1,200 pounds. Pumpkin growers maintain consistent soil moisture and remove all of the blossoms except one from a pumpkin vine to maximize the final size of the remaining pumpkin.
The giant varieties have been increasing in size. In 2006, a grower in Greene, R.I., broke the 1,500-pound pumpkin barrier. Last year, the 1-ton mark was broken by a grower in Greene, R.I.
Following is a list of world-record pumpkins:
2005 — 1,469 pounds, North Cambria, Pa.
2006 — 1,502 pounds, Greene, R.I.
2007 — 1,681 pounds, North Scituate, R.I.
2008 — 1,528 pounds, Oregon
2009 — 1,725 pounds, Jackson. Twp., Ohio
2010 — 1,810 pounds, New Richmond, Wis.
2011 — 1,818 pounds, Quebec, Canada
2012 — 2,009 pounds, Greene, R.I.
Dr. Dom Castaldo is a nutritionist and a biology instructor at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Ill. He welcomes comments via e-mail at email@example.com.
Posted Oct. 11, 2013