From the time you were a small child, you may have been conditioned to expect new and exciting things as autumn arrives. Every fall, children go back to school, see their friends and begin to anticipate the holiday season. One of the fruits closely associated with fall is pumpkin.
From pumpkin pie to pumpkin spice lattes or jack-o-lanterns it’s likely you associate fall with some type of pumpkin. Kathryn Lively, professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, spoke with a reporter from The Huffington Post about the expectations children have and how this conditions a response pattern that often travels into adulthood.1
Fall is a structural landmark, in the way significant dates help create structure in the perception of the passage of time.2 For example, just as January 1 is a landmark associated with developing personal growth and development goals, fall may be a time when your anticipation begins to grow, and you’re motivated to learn new skills or change behaviors.
Licensed psychologist and professor at Chapman University Amy Jane Griffiths, Ph.D., says, “We all crave the comfort and security that comes with traditions and predictability.”3 Many of us have traditions and events associated with fall weather, while others may dread the leaves changing or signs that winter is coming.
What Color Are Your Pumpkins?
Many have an interest in the science behind your anticipation of fall weather, fall foods and the hope of curling up with a blanket and a good movie. But it may still be difficult to explain the vast number of people who buy pumpkins each fall. In the U.S., Illinois is the No. 1 producer of this round orange squash, growing twice as many each year than in the other five top producing states.4
While you might think of it as a vegetable, the pumpkin is a fruit that’s known as much for its place in the kitchen as on your front porch. Mary Liz Wright, a University of Illinois Extension specialist, does not advise using your typical jack-o-lantern pumpkin in your fall recipes.5
This is because there are two distinct species of pumpkin. The first has been bred for size, structure and color to enhance your fall decor. The second is bred for consistency, flavor and texture of the meat. Pumpkins that are bred for flavor are tan or buckskin color on the outside with bright orange flesh on the inside.
They’re also more reminiscent of butternut squash in shape, rather than the more rounded outline of decorative pumpkins. Nathan Johanning, also a University of Illinois Extension specialist, spoke about the 2020 fall crop and the agritourism trade pumpkins support, sharing that one farm in Illinois had 5,000 tourists pass through in one weekend.
If you’re planning on saving the flesh from your pumpkins, Wright advises you cook and freeze it, since it is not advisable to can pumpkin or even pressure can it. The center of the dense flesh may not get hot enough to prevent botulism growth, which you can avoid by cooking it first and then freezing it.
Nutritious and Delicious Pumpkins
There are many health benefits to eating pumpkin and pumpkin seeds, as you’ll see in this short video. Although you can buy them year-round at the store, consider adding pumpkins to your garden since nearly every part of the plant can be eaten. You’ll be assured of a toxin-free fruit from which you can harvest the seeds as well as carve and cook your pumpkins in the fall.
Dried pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, are high in healthy fats and rich in omega-3 fats, zinc, calcium, iron and an array of phytochemicals.6 After being dried and shelled, the seeds have just 180 calories in one-fourth cup and are also packed with manganese, phosphorus, copper and magnesium.7
People have used pumpkin seed extract and oil in the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia. This is a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland that may respond to the nutrients found in pumpkin seeds. Because most of the studies have involved extracts or oils from pumpkin seeds, it’s not possible to extrapolate the information to eating the pumpkin seeds themselves.8
The meat of the pumpkin contains only 49 calories in 1 cup of cooked mashed flesh. It is rich in riboflavin and vitamins A, C and E.9 The rich orange color indicates the high level of beta-carotenes and antioxidants that your body uses to neutralize free radicals.
The high levels of vitamin A and C have a positive impact on your immune system, and it is a major source of lutein and zeaxanthin linked to healthy eyesight.10 The high levels of potassium, vitamin C and fiber are all associated with cardiovascular benefits.
For instance, one literature analysis found an inverse association between potassium and the risk of stroke.11 Another study demonstrated people with higher levels of potassium intake had lower risk of high blood pressure.12 The levels of beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin C all contribute to healthy skin, collagen production13 and protection against the damage of ultraviolet rays.14
Pumpkin Seeds May Reduce Your Risk of Kidney Stones
In addition to the health benefits listed above, pumpkin seeds have a special superpower: They protect your kidneys by reducing the risk of calcium-oxalate crystal formation, better known as kidney stones. There are four types of kidney stones that can form, including calcium, struvite, uric acid and cystine stones.15 Of these, calcium oxalate is the most common.
Nearly 80% of calcium stones that form are calcium oxalate. By manipulating urine chemistry through dietary intake, you can help prevent calcium stone formation. The highest urine chemistry risk factors for calcium oxalate crystals are hypercalciuria and hyperoxaluria.16
Dietary risk factors that increase your potential for calcium oxalate stones include chronic dehydration and a diet that is rich in protein, oxalates, sodium and sugar.17 People with certain digestive disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease, can also have a higher risk of calcium oxalate kidney stones. Oxalate can be found in these foods:18,19
Dark green vegetables, such as spinach
One study evaluated the ability of pumpkin seed supplementation to change the chemistry of the participants’ urine and reduce the risk of calcium oxalate crystal formation.20 Researchers engaged 20 boys from the Ubol Province in Thailand where there is a high incidence of kidney stones.21
During the experiment the boy’s urine was measured before any intervention as a control period. During two periods of the intervention they received an oxalate supplement and a pumpkin seed or orthophosphate supplement. The participants’ urine chemistry was tested before and after each intervention.
The results of the study showed that while the boys were receiving the pumpkin seed supplement, the urine chemistry had the lowest potential risk for calcium oxalate crystal formation. The researchers found the high levels of phosphorus in the pumpkin seed may be a “potential agent in lowering the risk of bladder-stone disease.”22
Pumpkin Spice Blend Elicits an Emotional Response
The scents associated with pumpkin pie are not strictly from pumpkin but, rather, a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, which are the traditional spices used in the pie. This combination of scents can trigger a strong emotional response in your brain, which causes you to recall experiences associated with the smell.23
The emotional response that odors generate have an impact on your decision to like or dislike something. Your sense of smell and memory are closely linked since scents travel from the limbic system through the amygdala and hippocampus, which are regions of the brain related to emotion and memory.24
The scent of pumpkin spices is popular during the fall months, especially in homemade products and the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Catherine Franssen, Ph.D., director of psychology at Longwood University, is a fan of the flavor and understands why this particular combination of spices elicits an emotional response. She commented to CNN:25
“Since these are popular spice combinations, it’s very likely we would have encountered some or all of them combined in a favorite baked good in a comforting situation, like a family gathering, early in life. It’s not just the pumpkin spice combo but that we’ve already wired a subset of those spices as ‘good’ very early in life.”
Starbucks seemed to stumble onto their popular Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003 when it was first released.26 Each fall the Pumpkin Spice Latte drink makes a return to stores, along with other “pumpkin-flavored” drinks — which may or may not actually have pumpkin in them — and baked goods. This year it’s the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew.27
In a press release, Peter Dukes, product manager who led the development of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, commented, “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be. It’s taken on a life of its own.”28
However, as enticing as the scent may be, the product is loaded with sugar and packs a whopping 52 grams of carbohydrates into a 16-ounce mug.29 Instead, consider making the healthy and tasty alternative at home demonstrated in the video below.
Neuroscience, Sugar Addiction and Marketing
The emotional response generated by scent is something marketers take advantage of. Pleasant scents affect your mood, which is a way of engaging your hand-to-wallet response.
In experiments comparing odorless placebo sprays against fragrances, researchers found while you will have a response to the placebo when you anticipate the fragrance, the actual scent has a dramatic effect on improving your mood.30
Although your preference is highly personalized, a general assumption is made that most people will find pumpkin spice in the fall and cinnamon during Christmas associated with good memories. As the scent of pumpkin spice triggers a happy memory, it can also trigger a desire to buy a cup. Franssen comments on the neuroscience involved in scent and advertising:31
“When an odor or flavor — and 80 percent of flavor is actually smell — is combined with sucrose or sugar consumption in a hungry person, the person learns at a subconscious, physiological level to associate that flavor with all the wonderful parts of food digestion.
[For that reason] the pumpkin spice latte is actually, scientifically, kind of addictive. Not quite the same neural mechanisms as drugs of abuse, but certainly the more you consume, the more you reinforce the behavior and want to consume more.”
The popular trend of promoting all things pumpkin in the fall even generated a hoax in 2014 when a Facebook meme reported Charmin toilet tissue would soon be released in a new pumpkin spice scent. Not soon after Charmin Company tweeted: “While we love it, we can promise you this. You will not be seeing #PumpkinSpice Charmin anytime soon. #StopTheMadness”32