When most children think about pumpkins they think about the familiar funny-faced Jack-O'-Lantern that lights up doorsteps this time of year. But adults have a more appreciative opinion of the historically-significant vegetable. Or, at least they should.
Pumpkin, like other bright orange- or yellow-fleshed fruits and vegetables, is a prime source of Vitamin A. This vitamin has been studied for its role in reducing risk of some forms of cancer. Its ability to fight infection and maintain tissue resiliency, are cited as significant.
The Indians prized pumpkin. So did the Pilgrims. They used it in everything from soups and stews to bread and candy. According to "Fresh: A Greenmarket Cookbook," by Carol E. Schneider (Random House), American Indians roasted pumpkin seeds and used the shell as a casserole. The pilgrims continued these traditions, serving pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.
Today, however, pumpkin is noted not only for its versatility as a cooking ingredient, but for its contribution to the daily requirement for Vitamin A, through its precursor, beta carotene. Carotene is present as the orange pigment of plants. When humans eat these bright foods, the body converts the carotene into retinol, which is one of the active forms of Vitamin A.
The most important role of Vitamin A in the human body is its ability to maintain and keep epithelial tissues healthy. Epithelial tissues are the protective linings inside the body such as those of the lungs, intestines, vagina, urinary tract, bladder and the cornea of the eye.
When supplies are low, night blindness and its progressive disease keratinization may occur. The low level of Vitamin A causes epithelial tissues to produce a tough protein called keratin instead of mucus, which changes the environment of the cornea (or other regions) from moist and smooth to dry and rough. This ultimately affects vision.
Conversely, when adequate supplies of Vitamin A are maintained in the body, these internal linings are better able to resist the ravaging effects of cancerous and other infectious disease-carrying cells. According to nutrition specialists, skin, lung, bladder and larynx cancers become less likely when sufficient Vitamin A or carotene are present.
Finally, Vitamin A is important for normal bone grown--particularly in children, when it helps in dismantling old bone and rejuvenating new growth. It allows normal tooth spacing and may have a role in nervous system responses.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin A is 1000 RE for women and 800 RE for men--a goal that is easily achieved by consuming deep orange and dark green fruits and vegetables such as apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, spinach and other dark, leafy greens. A single serving of any of these provides as much as 50 to 100% of the RDA. Dairy products, eggs and liver are other sources.
A small slice of pumpkin, about 3 1/2 ounces, contains about .65 milligrams of beta carotene, although this amount is seldom used for calculations. A one-cup serving of the cooked, mashed squash provides about 265 RE, while canned boasts about 5,404 RE. Other yellow-fleshed, winter squash contain approximately 729 RE per one-cup serving of baked cubes.