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By Barbara Quinn, The Monterey County Herald (TNS)

It was an amazing display of pumpkins at this roadside junction. Brightly colored pumpkins of every shape and size flirted with us to take them home. So we filled our carts (make it two carts) and hauled them home — some for decoration and others for eating. And all for the fun of this, my favorite season.

Pumpkins are big business this time of year, say those who analyze such things. Everything from pumpkin-flavored almonds to coffee are “in.”

What does the brilliant orange color of our beloved pumpkins tell us about their nutritional value? According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, orange is a dead giveaway that pumpkins are loaded with beta carotene, a substance with antioxidant properties that keep us from aging prematurely and also offer protection from heart disease and some types of cancer.

How do antioxidants work? According to the National Cancer Institute, they neutralize and render harmless certain bodily substances called free radicals that can damage our cells if left unchecked. Beta carotene is the main antioxidant in pumpkins and other orange-colored fruits and vegetables. Other antioxidants include lycopene (a red pigment in fruits and vegetables), and vitamins A, C and E.

One interesting note: A variety of scientific studies have found that taking supplements of antioxidants may not be as protective against cancer and other diseases as ingesting these substance in food. What’s the difference? Individual purified nutrients may not be effective in promoting health as the complex combination of substances in food. That’s probably the reason, say researchers, that diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains show great promise at delaying chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Which brings me back to pumpkins, please. Besides being a rich source of antioxidants, pumpkins are what nutrition experts call “nutrient-dense” foods; they pack a ton of nutrients into each calorie. For example, for less than 50 calories, a cup of cooked pumpkin provides protein, calcium, iron, potassium and a host of other vitamins and minerals.

But who am I kidding? We don’t often just eat plain pumpkin, now do we? Case in point: my daughter’s killer pumpkin dessert, enriched with eggs, butter, sugar and spices. Yes, those same good nutrients are there, just with a few gazillion more calories. To which I am reminded, as autumn blows us into pumpkin season…small portions, please.

(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at .)

(c)2015 The Monterey County Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Rhonda Fleming Hayes via Flickr

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