Our favorite way to prepare winter squash is to steam it as it takes such a short period of time. It's best to steam 1-inch cubes of squash. The preparation for this is described in the How to Enjoy section below. For most types of squash you only need to steam it for 7 minutes. So you save time and enjoy a host of more nutrients.
While we've become accustomed to thinking about leafy vegetables as an outstanding source of antioxidants, we've been slower to recognize the outstanding antioxidant benefits provided by other vegetables like winter squash. But we need to catch up with the times! Recent research has made it clear just how important winter squash is worldwide to antioxidant intake, especially so in the case of carotenoid antioxidants. From South America to Africa to India and Asia and even in some parts of the United States, no single food provides a greater percentage of certain carotenoids than winter squash. (In the United States, a recent study that has determined winter squash to be the number one source of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene among Hispanic men ages 60 and older living within the state off Massachusetts. And we've seen studies ranking foods from this Cucurbita genus at the top of the carotenoid list in Cameroon, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies!)
The unique carotenoid content of the winter squashes is not their only claim to fame in the antioxidant department, however. There is a very good amount of vitamin C in winter squash (about one-third of the Daily Value in every cup) and a very good amount of the antioxidant mineral manganese as well. Recent research has shown that the cell wall polysaccharides found in winter squash also possess antioxidant properties, as do some of their phenolic phytonutrients.
Most of the research to date on winter squash and inflammation has either been conducted using laboratory animals, or has been focused on laboratory studies of cell activity. Still, results in this area have been fascinating and also promising with respect to winter squash as an anti-inflammatory food. In some of the more detailed studies, specific inflammation-related molecules, enzymes, or cell receptors (for example, nuclear factor kappa-B, nitric oxide synthase, or cyclo-oxygenase) have been studied as targets for the activity of the cucurbitacin molecules found in winter squash. Cucurbitacins are glycoside molecules found in a wide variety of foods, including the brassica vegetables, some mushrooms, and even some ocean mollusks. But they are named for the gourd-squash-melon family of foods (Cucurbitaceae) due to their initial discovery in this food family. Cucurbitacins can be extremely bitter tasting to animals as well as humans, and they are considered to be part of the plants' natural defense mechanisms. Yet the same properties that make cucurbitacins potentially toxic to some animals and microorganisms also make them effective as anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory substances when we consume them in winter squash.
While winter squash should not be treated as a high-fat food, it does contain fats, including the anti-inflammatory omega-3s. One cup of baked winter squash will provide you with approximately 340 milligrams of omega-3 fats in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While that amount is only about one-third as high as the concentration of ALA found in the "best of the best" omega-3 plant foods like walnuts, it is still a valuable amount being provided by a low-fat food. (Less than 15% of the calories in winter squash come from fat, compared with almost 90% of the calories in walnuts!). With winter squash, we have a fantastic anti-inflammatory food opportunity in which we can get a valuable amount of our anti-inflammatory omega-3s without much of a change in our total fat intake.
It's the combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in winter squash that have shown this food to have clear potential in the area of cancer prevention and cancer treatment. Prostate cancer is the cancer type that has been of greatest research interest in this regard, followed by colon cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer. We have yet to see cancer-related studies that involve everyday amounts of winter squash consumed in food form. Most of the studies in this area have involved extracts from foods in the Cucurbita genus, or isolated, purified substances (like cucurbitans) that can be obtained from those foods. Still, given the clear antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of winter squash, we expect to see cancer studies in humans eventually identifying this food as a risk reducer for certain cancer types.
A second area of high potential for winter squash and its health benefits is blood sugar regulation and prevention of type 2 diabetes. We've already seen evidence in animal studies that show improvement in blood sugar and insulin regulation following intake of cell wall polysaccharides from winter squash and other Cucurbita foods. Likewise, we've seen research pointing to other nutrients found in winter squash as beneficial for blood sugar control. These nutrients include the B-vitamin like compound d-chiro-inositol—a nutrient we expect to see moving up on the radar screen with respect to blood sugar regulation. It's also important to remember that blood sugar regulation is closely tied to our overall supply of B-complex vitamins, and that winter squash is unusual in its B-vitamin composition. This food provides a good amount of five B-complex vitamins! Those vitamins are B1, B3, B6, pantothenic acid, and folate.
Finally, we believe that future research may underscore the health benefits provided by winter squash for prevention of cardiovascular disease. We already know that this food provides key antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits—two categories of nutrient support critically needed for reduced risk of most cardiovascular problems. But we also have preliminary evidence to suggest that there may be unique substances in the Cucurbita vegetables that partially block the formation of cholesterol in our cells by inhibiting an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase. Coupled with its unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory composition, winter squash may turn out to be particularly important food for inclusion in a heart healthy diet.
Winter squash, members of the Cucurbitaceae family and relatives of both the melon and the cucumber, come in many different varieties. While each type varies in shape, color, size and flavor, they all share some common characteristics. Their shells are hard and difficult to pierce, enabling them to have long storage periods between one week and six months. Their flesh is mildly sweet in flavor and finely grained in texture. Additionally, all have seed-containing hollow inner cavities.
We are just beginning to discover the wealth of nourishment supplied by the mildly sweet flavored and finely textured winter squash, a vegetable that was once such an important part of the diet of the Native Americans that they buried it along with the dead to provide them nourishment on their final journey. Winter squash is available from August through March; however, they are at their best from October to November when they are in season.
The list presented below will give you more details about the fascinating food family of Cucurbitaceae. Here you can see the foods that are relatives of winter squash:
As noted in the lists above, both winter squashes and summer squashes can be found within the Cucurbita genus of this food family. Here are some key food species—including varieties of winter squash—that you'll find in this amazing Cucurbita genus of foods: Cucurbita Genus and Species of Foods (including Winter Squash varieties)
|Cucurbita pepo* (variety melopepo)||Cucurbita pepo (variety pepo)||Cucurbita maxima||Cucurbita moschata||Cucurbita argyosperma*|
|zucchini (summer variety)||acorn squash (winter variety)||buttercup squash (winter variety)||butternut squash (winter variety)||cushaw squash (summer variety)|
|yellow crooknook squash (summer variety)||delicata squash (winter variety)||Hubbard squash (winter variety)||winter crookneck squash||cushaw squash|
|scallop squash (summer variety)||spaghetti squash (winter variety)||banana squash (winter variety)|
|Boston marrow squash (winter variety)|
|Turk's turban squash (winter variety)|
As presented in the chart above, common varieties of winter squash include:
Pumpkins are also members of the Cucurbitaceae food family, and also within the Cucurbita genus of these amazing foods. However, the word "pumpkin" can be confusing and it is used in different countries in different ways. In Australia, for example, the word "pumpkin" is often used to refer to the same category of foods that are called "winter squashes" in the United States. Since there are literally hundreds of pumpkin varieties grown worldwide, and since there are pumpkin varieties that can be found within each of the Cucurbita species presented in the chart above, pumpkins can be confusing from a botanical standpoint. Additionally, they are not always easy to categorize within a "summer versus winter" classification system (even though they are generally a warm weather crop). Pumpkins are not the least bit confusing, however, from a taste and texture standpoint! These delicious foods can be amazingly sweet tasting (as is the case with sugar pumpkin, also sometimes called pie pumpkin), and they are among the most versatile members of this entire gourd-squash-melon food family.
Modern day squash developed from the wild squash that originated in an area between Guatemala and Mexico. While squash has been consumed for over 10,000 years, they were first cultivated specifically for their seeds since earlier squash did not contain much flesh, and what they did contain was very bitter and unpalatable. As time progressed, squash cultivation spread throughout the Americas, and varieties with a greater quantity of sweeter-tasting flesh were developed. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe from the New World, and like many other native American foods, their cultivation was introduced throughout the world by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Today, the largest commercial producers of squash include China, Japan, Romania, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, and Argentina.
Winter squash is easily prone to decay, so it is important to carefully inspect it before purchase. Choose ones that are firm, heavy for their size and have dull, not glossy, rinds. The rind should be hard as soft rinds may indicate that the squash is watery and lacking in flavor. Avoid those with any signs of decay, which manifest as areas that are water-soaked or moldy.
At WHFoods, we encourage the purchase of certified organically grown foods, and winter squash are no exception. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including winter squash. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells winter squash but has not applied for formal organic certification either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) However, if you are shopping in a large supermarket, your most reliable source of organically grown winter squash is very likely to be winter squash that display the USDA organic logo.
Winter squash has a much longer storage life than summer squash. Depending upon the variety, it can be kept for between one week to six months. It should be kept away from direct exposure to light and should not be subject to extreme heat or extreme cold. The ideal temperature for storing winter squash is between 50-60°F (about 10-15°C). Once it is cut, cover the pieces of winter squash in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for one or two days. The best way to freeze winter squash is to first cut it into pieces of suitable size for individual recipes.
If you'd like even more recipes and ways to prepare winter squash the Nutrient-Rich Way, you may want to explore The World's Healthiest Foods book.
Winter Squash, cubed, cooked
|vitamin A||535.36 mcg RAE||59||14.1||excellent|
|vitamin C||19.68 mg||26||6.2||very good|
|fiber||5.74 g||23||5.4||very good|
|vitamin B6||0.33 mg||19||4.6||very good|
|manganese||0.38 mg||19||4.5||very good|
|copper||0.17 mg||19||4.5||very good|
|vitamin B2||0.14 mg||11||2.6||good|
|vitamin K||9.02 mcg||10||2.4||good|
|pantothenic acid||0.48 mg||10||2.3||good|
|omega-3 fats||0.19 g||8||1.9||good|
|vitamin B3||1.01 mg||6||1.5||good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%