The Squash Family


Audrey Junnier, DipION, Nutritional therapist

Year of publication: 

 Squash (or Cucurbitaceae for you Latin buffs out there) belong to the gourd or melon family and are divided into two main types, summer and winter squash. Summer squash are the more fragile of the two – they’re not suitable for storing over long periods and while less nutrient-dense than winter squash, due to their high water content, still provide some important health benefits. Examples of summer squash include courgettes and the aptly-named yellow summer squash. Winter squash are hardier than their summer cousins and are available from August to March, but they’re at their best from October to November, and they can be stored for extended periods ranging from 1-6 months. Winter squash include varieties such as pumpkins, acorn, butternut and spaghetti squash. Most of us are familiar with pumpkins as they are carved into scary looking jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween. The type of pumpkins used for the lanterns are less edible and it’s typically the smaller, sugar pumpkins that are used in cooking. The dried seeds are also a favourite in many dishes.

 Squash history

Squashes are originally native to Central and South America and pumpkins in particular were one of the staples in the Central American diet. The name pumpkin is derived from the old French word ‘pompion’ meaning ripe or cooked by the sun. Over time, squash cultivation spread across North America, the Native Americans called them ‘askutasquash’ which is where the modern name ‘squash’ originates. Squash was once such an important part of their diet that they buried them along with the dead to provide nourishment on their final journey. The US tradition of eating pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving originates from the kindness shown by Squanto, a native American who taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate squash, saving them from almost certain starvation following their first harsh winter in the New World. Columbus introduced squash to the European court on his return from his travels and today Europe is one of the major squash producers.

Trick or treat

 There are many theories as to the origins of the use of pumpkins at Halloween. Early Jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips and potatoes by the Irish and Scottish and carried in the Celtic celebration of the Feast of Samhain. Lumps of coal were lit on fire and placed inside the hollowed root vegetables. Later on, Irish children used to carve out potatoes or turnips and light them for their Halloween gatherings to commemorate Jack, a villain who angered the devil and was turned away from heaven and hell when he died. He was doomed to wander the earth in search of a resting place with only a light in a carved turnip to guide his search. Irish immigrants to North America continued this tradition, using pumpkins as substitutes for the hard-to-find turnip.

Nutritional and health benefits

Winter squash, especially the darkerfleshed ones such as pumpkin and acorn squash, have a number of beneficial nutrients including excellent levels of carotene, good amounts of vitamin C, manganese, B vitamins (B1, B3, B6) and folate. The seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds, are small powerhouses of nutrients containing good levels of phytosterols, manganese and magnesium.

Protection against cancer

A number of studies have investigated the role of carotene in cancer protection. A study earlier this year found that patients with higher levels of carotenoids (of which carotenes are one type), in their blood, had a lower risk of death or reoccurrence of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, while a recent 2010 study demonstrated that beta carotene exerted a protective influence with regard to breast cancer development. In 2009, researchers reported that study participants with certain blood levels of carotenoids were associated with a 50% reduction in breast cancer risk. This risk reduction was specifically correlated to women with the highest measurements of breast density. Increased breast density has been associated with a higher risk of breast cancer development.

Helpful for diabetes

Squashes also demonstrate interesting findings in the potential to protect against the development or control of type 2 diabetes, with pumpkin consumption thought to be the best candidate for conferring protection for this condition. A number of animal studies over the last five years have investigated this potential health benefit. In one study, type 2 diabetic rats were fed a pumpkin paste and showed markedly improved glucose tolerance over a 60-minute interval compared with the placebo group. In 2005, a study found that polysaccharide extracts from pumpkins improved glucose uptake into the cells, helping blood glucose balance. Researchers in a 2003 trial found that carotene in squash helped control glucose metabolism in men at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Prostate health

Research into pumpkin seed oil is showing interesting results in reducing the symptoms of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH), a non-malignant enlargement of the prostate gland, usually affecting men over 50. This condition can result in changes or problems with urination and if left untreated could increase the risk of urinary tract infections and development of bladder stones as well as the more serious consequence of kidney damage. Researchers in 2009 discovered that, after the administration of pumpkin seed oil to a group of men over 50, BPH symptoms decreased within three months and urinary flow (often significantly inhibited with BPH) improved considerably within six months. An earlier (2006) animal study noted that the administration of pumpkin seed oil inhibited prostate growth in rats.

Maintaining healthy cholesterol

Researchers since the late 1990s have conducted studies showing the beneficial effects of phytosterols in lowering cholesterol and a study published in July 2010 demonstrated that consuming 2g of phytosterols daily, significantly reduced LDL cholesterol. Couple that with beta carotene’s antioxidant capabilities to help prevent the build-up of oxidised cholesterol, which is a major contributor to the development of atherosclerosis, and the regular consumption of pumpkins, its seeds and other squashes is a good way to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Squashes are an interesting and versatile addition to the diet. They bring with them a host of protective benefits to help improve health over the autumn and winter months. Add squash to your shopping list today and start benefiting from the tasty goodness they have to offer.   

FOOD, Squash, carotene
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