The humble pumpkin, which originated in Central America and was revered by early Native Americans, has been bestowed with transformative powers in modern American culture. Cinderella's pumpkin turned into a coach to ferry her to the fateful ball at the prince's castle. Every Halloween, school children across America transform the orange squash into friendly or sinister carved countenances. And recent research has shown that in all its forms — flesh, seeds, and oil — pumpkin has the power to alter disease processes in the body.
The bright orange color of pumpkin "meat" is a clue to its wealth of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, which help neutralize free radicals and thereby reduce the risk of cancer. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, found in pumpkin flesh, promote eye health and guard against macular degeneration. Pumpkin is also a good source of vitamins A and C as well as alpha-hydroxy acids, which reduce the signs of aging in skin.
When carving your Halloween pumpkin, it's best not to discard the seeds. Research is emerging that shows pumpkin seeds — also known as pepitas — to have perhaps more benefits than pumpkin flesh itself. Pumpkin seeds are especially promising in the realm of prostate health, in particular for a condition known as BPH (benign prostatic hypertrophy). Common in men 50 years and older, BPH involves an enlargement of the prostate gland, in part due to overstimulation of prostate cells by testosterone. Components in pumpkin seed oil appear able to interrupt such prostate cell multiplication. The seeds are also high in carotenoids, omega-3 fats and zinc, compounds being studied for their potential prostate-supportive benefits. Zinc also helps guard against osteoporosis of the hip and spine, which, like BPH, is common in older men.
Pumpkin seeds are high in phytosterols, compounds found in plants that have been shown to reduce blood levels of cholesterol, enhance the immune response, and decrease the risk of certain cancers. They are commonly added to such foods as butter replacement spreads, but they occur in pumpkin seeds naturally and deliciously.
Compared with anti-inflammatory drugs for arthritis, pumpkin seeds are equally effective at reducing inflammation symptoms in animal studies. However, unlike drugs such as indomethacin — which can damage the lining of the joints and exacerbate arthritis — pumpkin seeds do not have any side effects.
Pumpkin seeds are nutrient-rich — a good source of magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus — and high in protein. Additionally, research in South Africa has shown that they can protect the liver from the harmful effects of protein deficiency. The oil of the pumpkin seed is loaded with essential fatty acids, which maintain healthy blood vessels and nerves as well as provide proper lubrication for tissues, including the skin.
Given the wide ranging benefits of all parts of the pumpkin, the autumn squash deserves its due in the kitchen rather than being relegated to a front-porch decoration. Likewise, it can be so much more than a mere filling for a pie. In recipes, pumpkin lends itself to both sweet and savory preparations. With its versatility and storehouse of seeds, pumpkin proves to have as many possibilities as a jack-o'-lantern's expression.