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Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Work with Fresh Pumpkin

Even before I started messing around with fresh pumpkin (which is not as scary as I thought it would be), I noticed a discrepancy between the nutritional information found on the labels of the two brands of canned pumpkin  I've used. I went online to look at the various databases and none of the numbers matched up. To make things even more confusing, the cup to oz/g ratios didn't match either. To give you an idea of these wildly varying values, here is a comparison:

1/2 C (100 g) 40 cal, 9 g total carbs, 4 g net carbs, 0 fat, 5 g fiber, 2 g protein.
Farmer's Market: 
1/2 C (100 g) 45 cal, 9 g total carbs, 8 g net carbs, 0 fat, 1 g fiber, 1 g protein.
1/2 C (122.5 g) 41.5 cal, 10 g total carbs, 6.5 g net carbs, 0 fat, 3.5 g fiber, 1.5 g protein.
1.2 C (122.5 g) 41.5 cal, 9.9 g total carbs, 6.35 g net carbs, .35 g fat, 3.55 g fiber, 1.35 g protein. (USDA Natural Agriculture Library Nutrition Data Lab)
 1/2 C (122.5g) 42 cal, 9.91 g total carbs, 6.31 net carbs, .28 g fat, 2.9 g fiber, 1.35 g protein.

 I've noticed the same phenomenon on other packaged food products. I try to use unprocessed food as much as possible, but I can't fit a dairy into my one bedroom apartment so I have to buy prepackaged cheese, for example. If you compare the nutritional values for the same kind of cheese made by different companies, the numbers don't match up. Same thing for frozen fruits and vegetables. As someone who really needs to keep track of net carbohydrates, in particular, I was dismayed. Clearly the food manufacturers fudged their labels; I measured 1 cup of canned pumpkin and it is, indeed, 122.5 g. And the manufacture's labels both claim to have 4 - 1/2 servings (they don't - it comes out to  3 1/4 cups per15 oz can). I've noticed this on other labels as well; 1 oz equal 28 grams but it is sometimes represented on labels as having 28.5 g or 30g. What's interesting is that the USDA website shows two sets of values - for canned pumpkin they show both 100 g and 122.5 g - 100 g being 1 "unit" of measurement and 122.5 g for the 1/2 C measurement. The moral of the story is that you can't trust the manufacturer's labels  But none of the database's numbers match up either. Why the discrepancy and which one is the most accurate?

As it turns out, there isn't a whole lot of information on the subject of nutrition labels and their accuracy available on the internet, but I was able to clarify a few things for myself. Each nutritional database conducts multiple laboratory tests to determine the values of any given food. The values they publish are averages of the data derived from those tests. They do this because the nutritional content of any "natural" food, grown in different places and under different conditions, isn't uniform. In addition, those values change over time. Agricultural practices have been modified to create greater yields and  changes in climate and soil can increase or decrease nutritional values. Also, certain foods are bred to make them more palatable. One example is that many fruits have been bred over time to make them sweeter. Even the nutritional contents of processed and packaged foods are allowed to vary 20% from the values on their labels according to FDA standards and tests have revealed that they sometimes vary even more. I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised; corporations often do whatever they can get away with as long as it optimizes their profit margins. The bottom line is that we can never be absolutely certain of the numbers we look at, either on labels or in the databases. I've decided to stick with the data found on the USDA online database to determine nutritional information for my recipes and I'm going to keep in mind that the numbers aren't set in stone.

Using canned pumpkin is low maintenance; it's not a labor intensive process (unless you consider operating a can opener a heavy burden) and it's easy enough to keep the pantry well-stocked. But if you don't mind the work, fresh pumpkin tastes better and there's less to recycle. Having pumpkin seeds to roast is an added bonus. You want to use smaller pumpkins, known as "sugar pumpkins" (they are sometimes labeled as such in grocery stores), because they are sweeter and the texture is less grainy than larger pumpkins.

 A 3 pound pumpkin will yield around 2 cups (490 g) of mashed  or pureed pumpkin. There are several methods for cooking fresh pumpkin; it can be boiled, steamed and even microwaved, but I decided to try baking it and I was pleased with the results.

Baked Pumpkin


*Preheat oven to 375°F.

*Wash the exterior of the pumpkin in warm water and pat dry.

*Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut the pumpkin in half, removing the stem. 

*Scoop out the insides with a spoon and if you want, save the seeds for roasting. 

*Place face-down on a baking sheet lined with foil.

*Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Scoop out insides with a spoon and put in a large bowl. Mash using a hand blender or puree in a food processor or blender.

Total: 98 cal, 29.41 total carbs, 24.01 net carbs, .07 fat, 5.4 g fiber and 3.53 g protein.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

If you want to toss the seeds away with the rest of the gunk that comprises a pumpkin's innards, I don't blame you - separating the seeds is a messy, time consuming chore. On the other hand, if you don't mind getting a little slimy, pumpkin seeds are an excellent snack. They are high in protein, vitamins E and B-complex, and are a good source of essential minerals like copper, manganese, calcium, iron,magnesium, zinc and selenium. They are especially rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids that help lower bad LDL cholesterol and increase good HDL cholesterol in the blood. There are a variety of ways they can be seasoned, but I prefer mine plain with just a bit of sea salt. If you've ever tried the packaged seeds, you'll know how overly salty they can be. Food manufacturer's do this on purpose- highly salted, crunchy foods trigger cravings that make you want to eat more (read the New York Times story: The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food if you want to find out more). They also make you crave sweets, so if you're going to the trouble of using fresh pumpkin, using the seeds makes good sense.

After you separate the seeds from the stringy pumpkin innards, you have to wash them. Put the seeds in in a big bowl of water and rub them between your hands.Transfer them to a fine-meshed strainer and rinse them thoroughly. Don't worry if there are are still bits of pumpkin flesh on them - once they've dried out, they are easy to to remove.  Let them sit in the strainer for 30 minutes, then spread them out on a baking pan. You can either use a hair dryer to dry them quickly (seriously!) or place then in a warm oven (120°F - 150°F) and stir them every 10 minutes to speed the drying.

Preheat the oven to 275°F. You can toss the seeds with either olive oil or melted butter and season them with sea salt - depending on how much you have, the ratio should be 1 tablespoon of oil or butter to 1/4 to1/8 tsp sea salt. You can also add a variety of spices to your liking or, if you're like me, you can roast them without oil or seasoning. Spread them evenly on a baking sheet lined with unbleached parchment paper. Bake for 10 - 20 minutes, checking every 5 minutes, depending on how well done you want them. Allow them to cool completely and store in an airtight container.

A 1 oz/28 g serving has 163 cal, 4.17 total carbs, 2.37 net carbs, 13.91 g fat, 1.8 g fiber and 8.46 g protein.

1 comment:

  1. Philippine pili nuts from the Bicol region in the Philippines is a great Filipino or Philippines food orsnack. Pili nuts are very healthy and nutritious indeed, being a source of energy, potassium and iron.They also have protein, dietary fiber / fibre, and calcium as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.  I know they have no cholesterol, no trans fat, and the unsalted ones have no sodium. What is great about the pili nut snack or treat is that they are so crisp, rich, and delicious.