How Processing Changes Pumpkin’s Health Benefits

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From jack-o’-lanterns to pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin’s appearance at farm stands, stores, and bakeries is the de facto sign that fall has arrived. But unless it’s in a pie, you might not think about carving out room for pumpkin in your diet. That’s too bad because like other winter squashes, pumpkin and foods made with it have a lot going for them nutritionally—provided you choose carefully. Our breakdown below gives you the details.

1. Fresh Pumpkin

Pumpkins, a type of squash, can be used in sweet or savory dishes—smaller varieties (sometimes called sugar pumpkins) are best for pie; larger ones used for jack-o’-lanterns tend to be bland and watery. Pumpkins offer up antioxidant carotenoids, some of which convert to vitamin A in the body. One cup cooked has nearly all the vitamin A you need daily. Fresh pumpkin has 3 grams of fiber, good amounts of potassium, and some vitamin C. You can even roast the seeds for a snack packed with healthy fats, protein, and magnesium.

2. Canned Pumpkin

The can may say 100 percent pumpkin, but it probably isn’t—it can be a mix of pumpkin and another golden-fleshed squash, which is denser and sweeter. (This swap is acceptable to the Food and Drug Administration.)

Even so, nutritionally, you might be better off with canned pumpkin than with fresh cooked: One cup of canned has more carotenoids and fiber (7 grams), plus about a fifth of your daily iron needs. Don’t confuse canned pumpkin with pumpkin pie mix: The latter can have about 48 grams of added sugars per cup, and that’s before even more sugar is added to some pie recipes.

3. Pumpkin Muffins

Unless pumpkin muffins are made from scratch, it’s hard to know how much pumpkin they contain. Any health benefit from the real pumpkin is overshadowed by the hefty amounts of white flour and sugar baked into the muffin. For example, sugar and white flour are the first ingredients listed—meaning they predominate—on the Krusteaz Pumpkin Spice Muffin Mix, with dried pumpkin flakes further down the list. A small muffin has 19 grams of sugars, zero fiber, and little vitamin A. And a Starbucks pumpkin bread slice contains 410 calories, 39 grams of sugars, 500 mg of sodium, and 2 grams of fiber.

Know, too, that pumpkin spice foods may be flavored with the classic combo of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other warm spices, but they are often pumpkin-free.  

If you’re looking for a pumpkin treat, try pumpkin pie. Although it’s made with sugar and sometimes heavy cream, at least you know you’re getting a decent amount of pumpkin in there. Best: Try CR’s recipe for crustless pumpkin pie, which gives you all the flavor while saving you the calories and fat from the crust. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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