Winter is fast approaching, as the days grow shorter and the temperature is dropping. With that said, we think about foods that are hardy and supply us with good nourishment. Winter squash are a group of calorie-dense foods that do just that and are in plentiful supply at this time of year. They are an amazing gift from Mother Nature, packed with an incredible variety of nutrients! I like to admire the decorative array of winter squash at the Co-op, in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I have yet to try all the varieties out there but those I have eaten each have their own unique taste and texture. Winter squash are so named because they can be stored during the winter, often for several months at a time due to their hard skin. They all originate from the same vegetable family, the cucurbits. They originated thousands of years ago in Central and South America before moving up north, and by the mid 1800s, they were a staple product in the Northeast.
Did you ever wonder what is responsible for the rich orange color inside the squash? It’s due to their carotenoid content. Squash are one of the richest sources of carotenoids, and alongside the usual alpha and beta-carotene there are many more, a dozen actually, which include: auroxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, flavoxanthin, luteoxanthin, neoxanthin, neurosporene, phytofluene, taraxanthin, violaxanthin, and zeaxanthin. Each of these carotenoids has something special to offer in regard to antioxidants.
Squash provides a wallop of carbohydrates (95% of its calories are from carbohydrates) but unlike other foods high in carbohydrates, it does not send the glucose level soaring. Research has shown that it slowly releases the sugar inside our digestive tract. Vegetables in the winter squash family are considered low glycemic and they support a healthy sugar metabolism. Winter squash provide a type of fiber—pectin—which has a unique structure, specifically galacturonans, the molecular structure of which partially explains why it is instrumental in regulating the release of glucose into our digestive tract.
Although carotenoids are definitely their nutritional highlight, winter squash has other nutritional attributes that cannot be ignored. They are a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin A, fiber, and potassium, and are also considered a good source of manganese, copper, magnesium, vitamins C and K, and they even contain a small amount of omega -3 fats! If you feel so inclined, roast the seeds from winter squash at a low temp (100 degrees) for no more than 20 minutes, and you will also be able to access the vitamin E from this nutrition powerhouse of a vegetable.
There are many winter squash to choose from but some of my favorites are butternut, delicata, and kabocha. No matter which one you pick, they are all delicious! They can be cut up or puréed in soups, casseroles, roasted, or steamed. The cooked flesh also makes delicious muffins, breads, pies, or even pudding. When buying winter squash choose ones that are firm, unless you plan to use them right away. Take advantage of the bountiful harvest of winter squash we have here locally available, and give your body of boost of nutrients this winter season!
by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist