Plus, what kind of pumpkin you should avoid, according to our nutritionist. 
Credit: Photo: Kelly Sillaste / Getty

If you’ve been to any grocery store lately, you probably already know that the pumpkin spice mania is bigger than ever. Even though many “pumpkin” products still contain little to no real pumpkin, the seasonal craze is at least placing a spotlight on pumpkin as a food and produce item, rather than just holiday décor. It’s a good thing, too, since pumpkin is packed with nutrients and disease-fighting compounds.

Pumpkins are a type of winter squash (like acorn and butternut) and a part of the gourd family. If you’ve checked out the selection at a local market, you’ve likely noticed that there are several types to choose from that range in color—from orange to green to white—skin texture, and size.  

Large Jack-o-lantern pumpkins are perfect for carving, and while technically safe to consume, these aren’t ideal ones to eat. The ones you want for cooking are smaller pumpkin varieties ranging from 2 to 5 pounds. These pumpkins are often broadly labeled “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” in groceries or markets, and their sweet flavor and thin skin makes them ideal for cooking and eating.

Nutritionally speaking, actual cooked pumpkin is the complete opposite to that pumpkin-spice latte, as it’s packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals—including more potassium than a medium banana! Here's what's packed into a one-cup serving of pumpkin:

The nutritional profile of pumpkins is impressive, but it’s the carotenoids in pumpkin (something not listed on a label) that are an even better health perk. Carotenoid compounds—one of which is the antioxidant beta-carotene—are what give a pumpkin its bright orange color, but more importantly, are responsible for potentially reducing certain disease risks.

Research has associated regular and adequate consumption of carotenoid-rich foods with  reduced risk of certain cancers, a reduced risk for heart disease, reduced inflammation, a reduced risk of macular degeneration, as well as proper immune functioning. Compared to all other produce, the pumpkin contains some of the highest levels of carotenoids.

What to Do With Pumpkin

The cooking process for a pumpkin is pretty similar to cooking an acorn or butternut squash. Slice or cube, then bake, roast, or boil. Serve cubed, mashed or pureed. Pumpkin can be substituted for other winter squash or sweet potatoes in most. Stirring pureed pumpkin into muffin or pancake batter is a an easy way to create healthier pumpkin spice treats, but don’t overlook savory dishes. When paired with savory herbs and spices, pumpkin creates a creamy base for soups, pasta sauces, and fillings. No time to cook?  Stir a spoonful or two of mashed pumpkin into hot oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothies.

Love cooking with pumpkin? Try these recipes:


Should You Use Canned or Fresh Pumpkin?

Still not sure about cooking pumpkin? The good news is that cans labeled “100% pumpkin” provide a pretty close alternative to fresh. Convenience is likely what makes canned the most predominant form of pumpkin used in cooking, but canned also offers a smooth, dense texture that many prefer over cooked fresh pumpkin, which can be stringy and watery. The trick to buying canned is to make sure you don’t pick up “pumpkin pie filling” and to check the ingredient list to ensure pumpkin is the only ingredient listed.

What “Pumpkin” Should I Avoid?

Incorporating pumpkin into recipes and meals is a low-calorie, high-fiber way to get key nutrients and disease-fighting compounds into your diet. However, many pumpkin-labeled products don’t contain the fruit at all. Instead, artificial flavorings, added sugars and/or spices provide the only “pumpkin” included. To avoid this, read labels carefully to make sure pumpkin is not only the predominant ingredient but to also make sure that other ingredients (like lots of added sugars) don’t outweigh potential health benefits.