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Every fall it seems as though more and more things are being flavored with pumpkin and pumpkin spice, but how many of us have ever actually tasted a pumpkin?

Pumpkins are a member of the winter squash family, but the grocery store cans of “pureed pumpkin” actually consist of a type or blend of several different winter squash varieties, with those most commonly used being Hubbard, Golden Delicious and Butternut.

The Libby’s brand, owned by the Nestlé, a Swiss conglomerate, produces as much as 90% of all the canned squash sold worldwide. Libby's uses only a variety of curcurbita moschata squash called Dickinson, which resembles butternut squash in taste. Manufacturers of pumpkin puree have found that using winter squash instead of pie pumpkins yields a better puree that is not stringy and is less watery.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for 2015-20 describe the vegetable subgroup in which winter squash and pumpkin fall as “deep orange vegetables, of which we are supposed to eat two to three cups per week as part of a good diet.”

Winter squash is so named because they are picked at the end of the summer and can be stored and eaten during the winter months. Winter squash has a hard outer rind that helps to protect the flesh and prolong the shelf life of the vegetable, but usually needs to be removed before consumption.

Not only are canned pumpkin and winter squash purees a good source of vitamins A and C, a cup of cooked pumpkin can provide more than 200% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, which is needed for healthy skin, eyes and tissues that line the openings in our bodies. The same amount of cooked pumpkin also offers 20% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, which is important to help our bodies form collagen, absorb iron, have a strong immune system, heal wounds, and maintain our cartilage, bones and healthy gums.

If using pumpkin and winter squash puree in dishes, be sure to purchase canned pumpkin instead of canned pumpkin pie filling, as the latter has added sugars and flavors. Pumpkin and winter squash purees aren’t limited solely to dessert fillings.

Here are some other versatile uses:

— Use as a substitute for butter or oil in baked goods such as breads, brownies or muffins.

— Stir into fat-free vanilla yogurt and create a parfait with nutritious toppings.

— Add to soups, pasta sauces, macaroni and cheese, and chili.

— Utilize at breakfast time in smoothies or batters for pancakes and waffles.

— Mix with peanut butter and spread it on whole wheat bread for a sandwich.

If you are planning on preserving squash or pumpkin, please reference our new Penn State Extension publication, “Let’s Preserve: Squash and Pumpkin,” a fact sheet for research-tested recipes and procedures for preserving these foods safely. The publication can be found at extension.psu.edu/lets-preserve-squash-and-pumpkins.

Stacy Reed is an educator with Penn State Extension in Lancaster, specializing in food safety and nutrition.

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