Food as Medicine Update: Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbitaceae)

Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are an economically important fruit native to Central America and belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. This family consists of approximately 1,000 species of which 23 are cultivated in warm and temperate climates worldwide.1,2 In addition to pumpkins, other familiar cucurbits (species in Cucurbitaceae) include squashes, melons, and gourds.3,4 Cucurbita pepo as a species includes many varieties of winter squash and summer squash. Any round and orange fruit yielded by any variety or cultivar of the species is usually called a pumpkin, even though the word has no real botanical meaning. Pumpkins do not after-ripen and are harvested when fully mature in late summer or fall and can be stored for winter use.5 Archaeological evidence from Mexico indicates that Cucurbita pepo is one of the oldest known cultivated species, dating back to 8,000-10,000 years ago.1,2,6 Pumpkins were cultivated by indigenous peoples throughout Mexico, Central America, and North America long before the arrival of the Europeans.1

Cucurbita pepo is an annual gourd that is characterized by sprawling, coarse vines and climbing tendrils that are flexible, hollow, and prickly to the touch, with large, oval-shaped leaves.7 Pumpkin produces flowers that are bright orange-yellow with rounded lobes that angle outwards. The fruit is spherical in shape, covered by a firm, ribbed, thick layer of orange or yellow skin. Pumpkins range in size from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds, but average 7-10 pounds.3 All pumpkins have hollow seed-containing inner cavities.8 Pumpkin flesh has a mildly sweet flavor and finely grained texture. Each fruit contains a large number of seeds, which are flat and ovate-elliptical shaped, dark green in color, and enclosed in a creamy white husk.7 The seed has a fibrous texture with a subtle sweetness and nuttiness. Among the many edible cucurbits, pumpkin is appreciated for its high yields, long storage life, and nutrient density.4

The name “pumpkin” originates from the Greek word pepon, which means “large melon.”4 The French modified this name to pompon, and the British changed it to pumpion, which was later changed by the American colonists to pumpkin.4,9

Historical and Commercial Uses

Native to Central America, the pumpkin was one of the first New World foods to be brought back to Europe in the 1500s; cultivation spread quickly thereafter for the fruit’s edible and ornamental value.5 The modern pumpkin pie has its origins in colonial New England, where colonists cut off the top of the pumpkin, removed the seeds, filled the fruit with milk, spices, and honey, and baked it over hot ashes.3

Commercially, pumpkin flesh lends itself to the production of numerous value-added products, including jam, jelly, marmalade, candy, puree, sauce, chutney, and pickles.4 Pumpkin seed flour is used as a natural coloring agent in pasta and flour blends and to increase the protein content of wheat flour, baked goods, soups, and noodles.4

Pumpkin has a long history as a functional food and medicine. In addition to its use by indigenous Americans, pumpkins have been used as a medicine in several countries such as China, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Argentina, India, Mexico, and Brazil. The seeds are used as an antihelmintic (to expel intestinal worms, particularly tapeworms) and as a diuretic.6,9 In traditional Chinese medicine, pumpkin seeds are used to treat motion sickness, nausea, impotency, and swollen prostate accompanied by difficult or dribbling urination.10

Pumpkin’s modern clinical uses are comparable to its traditional uses. In Bulgaria, Turkey, and Ukraine, pumpkin seeds were traditionally consumed to reduce enlarged prostates.6 In Germany, pumpkin seed is an official medicine listed in the 10th edition of the German Pharmacopeia. The German Commission E and the European Medicines Agency approved the use of pumpkin in nonprescription drugs for prostate and urinary conditions,6,11 Pumpkin seeds are an alternative treatment for lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) related to stage 1 benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), characterized by frequent urination and post-void dribbling, and stage 2 BPH, associated with impaired bladder function (e.g., urgency to urinate or incomplete emptying of the bladder).6 Pumpkin seed is also approved to treat irritable bladder and for reducing the occurrence of bladder stones as well as bedwetting in children.6

In Austria and nearby countries, pumpkins have been cultivated for their seed oil for more than three centuries.Pumpkin seed oil (PSO) from a particular varietal known as the Styrian pumpkin (C. pepo subsp. pepo, var. styriaca) produced in southern Austria and Slovenia is considered a Protected Designation of Origin product in the European Union. Nicknamed “green gold,” the dark green Styrian PSO has culinary and medicinal applications and is an integral part of the local culture throughout Eastern Europe.12

Pumpkins and other winter squash have long storage periods of one to six months and provide a nutrient-dense food source after the growing season has ended.5,8 In France, pumpkin is predominately used for making soups, while in the south of France, pumpkin is an ingredient in baked bread and pumpkin pie, known as citrouillat.In Argentina, large pumpkins are filled with meat stew and cooked.5 In general, roasted pumpkin flesh is a popular addition to soup and baked goods, and can also be mixed with potatoes and made into a mash.5 In the United States, pumpkin pie is a traditional Thanksgiving dessert. Pumpkins are highly valued in Chiapas, Mexico, where they are combined with honey for the preparation of the dessert known as palanquetas.7 In Spain, Mexico, and other countries shelled pumpkin seeds are roasted, fried, or salted and eaten as a nutritious snack (pepitas).5 In Italy, dried, salted, unshelled seeds known as passatempo are a popular snack.5

The United States is the top producer of pumpkins, followed by Mexico, India, and China.13 Pumpkins are used as an ornamental decoration during Halloween and Thanksgiving in the United States and have recently become a crop of interest in agritourism (defined broadly, “agritourism” is the act of visiting any agricultural operation or business in order to be educated or entertained).14 Currently, pumpkin farms in California and elsewhere are considered to be a popular and lucrative tourist attraction, commonly offered in conjunction with other farm activities such as pony rides and corn mazes.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Several constituents of pumpkin have demonstrated anti-diabetic, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, hypotensive, and antioxidant actions in vitro.7,10 Pumpkin flesh is a very good source of vitamin C, which is necessary for wound healing, collagen formation, and iron absorption,15 and has an array of energy-producing B vitamins and dietary fiber.16 Pumpkins are also a good source of pyridoxine (vitamin B6), which is involved in amino acid, glucose, and lipid metabolism and the formation of red blood cells,17 and niacin (vitamin B3), which helps convert carbohydrates into glucose and metabolizes fats and proteins.8

The pumpkin fruit is low in fat and contains an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Similar to other brightly colored vegetables, pumpkin is an excellent source of carotenoids, including lutein, beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Beta-carotene, a vital antioxidant, and precursor to vitamin A, maintains the health and function of bones, skin, mucous membranes, and vision.1,3,8 Vegetables rich in carotenes have demonstrated protective effects against cancers, particularly lung cancer, and may also help prevent type 2 diabetes.Additionally, the fruit contains gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter associated with reducing anxiousness.7

Some of the bioactive compounds in pumpkin flesh that offer beneficial health effects are polysaccharides, para-aminobenzoic acid, phytosterols (e.g., beta-sitosterol, sitostanol, and avenasterol), proteins, peptides, and lignans.7 Protein-bound polysaccharides (PBPP) have been shown to increase levels of insulin, decrease blood glucose levels, and enhance glucose tolerance.9 Researchers theorize that these effects may be related to antioxidant activities that prevent the destruction of pancreatic beta cells.18 Therefore, PBPPs in pumpkin may have a role in preventing the development and progression of diabetes.9,18

Pumpkin seeds are rich in protein and minerals, including magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, and chromium.7 PSO is high in vitamin E and oleic acid and can be used as a substitute for common vegetable oils.

Pumpkin seed has demonstrated broad-spectrum antimicrobial activities attributed to specific peptides and proteins within the seed.9 For example, a number of peptides from pumpkins seeds have inhibited fungal infections caused by Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium oxysporum, and Mycosphaerella arachidicola in vitro.19

Pumpkin seeds contain beneficial compounds including polyunsaturated fatty acids, all nine essential amino acids, and vital micronutrients. Linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3), which are fatty acids present in pumpkin seeds, help to reduce the production of inflammatory products. Tryptophan, one of the nine essential amino acids present in pumpkin is converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood and eases anxiety and depression. Cucurbitacins, a class of triterpenoids, are associated with pumpkin seed’s anthelmintic and antiparasitic properties.6,13

Phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds that are functionally and structurally similar to 17β-estradiol and synthetic estrogens, such as diethylstilbestrol. Plant estrogens can bind to human estrogen receptors but are generally weaker than estradiol. Pumpkin seeds are rich in phytoestrogen content (265 mg per 10 0g), specifically the lignan secoisolariciresinol.21 Secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG) has shown to exhibit cholesterol-lowering activity and cardioprotective effects through the formation of new blood vessels and decreased apoptosis (normal, programmed cell death).21 These effects are thought to be the result of antioxidant properties, which inhibit cell membrane damage and scavenge free radicals.

Modern Research and Potential Health Benefits

Pumpkin’s low-fat, protein-rich seeds are considered to have far more therapeutic potential than its fruit flesh.7 Current medical research on C. pepo focuses heavily on the effects of pumpkin seeds and PSO. Studies have shown that pumpkin seeds have therapeutic potential for a variety of conditions, including BPH, urinary tract infections associated with BPH, hypertension, diabetes, and microbial infections. Diets that include a high intake of PSO have been associated with a lower risk of gastric, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers.7

Men’s Health Benefits

Consumption of pumpkin flesh, seed, and seed oil has been linked to a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer.7 Pumpkin seeds have shown to be an effective alternative treatment for LUTS secondary to BPH.14 BPH is characterized by an enlarged prostate gland, which commonly results in the constriction of the lower urinary tract in men.22,23 Fifty percent of men over the age of 60 reports having BPH, with 15%-30% of these men also experiencing LUTS.23

Research suggests that the phytosterols in pumpkin seed preparations may help prevent testosterone-induced BPH by inhibiting 5α-reductase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to dihydrotestosterone, which is linked to prostate enlargement and can ultimately lead to BPH.21 Few clinical studies have been conducted on the effects of pumpkin seed preparations on BPH; however, the limited clinical evidence suggests that consumption of pumpkin seed preparations may help improve BPH/LUTS symptoms without adverse effects.6,22

In 2014, a randomized, partially double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, 12-month study called the German Research Activities on Natural Urologicals (GRANU) study, investigated the efficacy of pumpkin seed consumption in 1,431 men with mild-to-moderate LUTS associated with BPH.22 Participants were randomly assigned to consume 5 g purified pumpkin seed (GRANU FINK® Kürbiskerne; Omega Pharma Deutschland GmbH; Herrenberg, Germany) twice daily, one 500 g pumpkin seed extract capsule (GRANU FINK Prosta forte) twice daily, or matching placebo. Both active treatments exhibited statistically significant improvements in the International Prostate Symptom Score (IPSS) screening tool and quality of life (QoL) scores in the 417 participants who completed the study. Additionally, the pumpkin seed group experienced greater improvements in IPSS-related QoL scores than the placebo group. QoL scores were enhanced by 36% for pumpkin seed, 33.4% for pumpkin seed extract, and 29.2% for placebo.22

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 47 patients with BPH investigated the effectiveness of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, Arecaceae) berry oil, PSO, or a combination of both over a 12-month period.24 The dose was 320 mg capsules of each twice daily and was compared with placebo (320 mg/day of sweet potato [Ipomoea batatas, Convolvulaceae] starch). When the study concluded, IPPS scores were significantly reduced in all groups except for the placebo group. The treatment groups displayed a decrease in prostate volume and a significant increase in the maximal urinary flow rate.24 The use of PSO alone resulted in an improved IPSS score by five points, with an overall improvement rate of 64.8% and an average increase in the urinary flow rate of 14 mL/second at baseline to 17 mL/second at the end of the study, a 14.9% improvement.24 Greater symptomatic improvements occurred when both PSO and saw palmetto berry oil were combined, but it was not statistically significant.

A 90-day phase II randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 57 men diagnosed with BPH/LUTS was conducted to analyze the efficacy and safety of a clinically tested brand known as ProstateEZE Max® (Caruso’s Natural Health; New South Wales, Australia), which contains pumpkin seed, fireweed (Epilobium parviflorum, Onagraceae) herb, lycopene, pygeum (Prunus africanum, Rosaceae) bark, and saw palmetto berry.23 This polyherbal formulation was designed to manage LUTS symptoms in men diagnosed with BPH. Interventions consisted of one capsule daily of either ProstateEZE Max or a placebo. IPSS scores were measured at baseline and after one, two, and three months. When the study concluded, there was a statistically significant reduction in the average IPSS score in the treatment group (38%) compared to the placebo group (8%). Additionally, daytime urinary frequency in the treatment group experienced a 15.6% reduction compared to no significant reduction in urinary frequency in the placebo group. Nighttime urinary frequency was also significantly reduced by 39.3% in the treatment group compared to the placebo group (7%). 23

Antimicrobial and Antiparasitic Effects

PSO has exhibited broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects. The liquid chromatography-mass spectroscopy (LC-MS)-based fingerprinting analysis of pumpkin seed extract revealed the presence of a compound tentatively identified as berberine, an isoquinoline alkaloid that is also present in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, Berberidaceae) and agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata, Berberidaceae) that is associated with antimicrobial actions against bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses, and parasitic worms.25 This important discovery may elucidate and reinforce the traditional use of pumpkin seed preparations an antiparasitic medicine.

PSO has exhibited broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects in vitro against the following bacteria: Acinetobacter baumanniiAeromonas veronii bio group sobriaCandida albicansEnterococcus faecalisEscherichia coliKlebsiella pneumoniaePseudomonas aeruginosaSalmonella enterica subsp. enterica serotype typhimuriumSerratia marcescens, and Staphylococcus aureus.7,9 As antibiotic-resistant bacteria grow more prevalent, scientists are working to identify plant-based compounds with antimicrobial actions; pumpkin consumption, particularly in countries with insufficient health care infrastructure, may help protect against harmful organisms that can result in infectious diseases.7 Pumpkin and PSO should be further researched to validate these potential uses.

Cardiovascular Benefits

Research on PSO has confirmed its cardioprotective, antihypertensive, and atheroprotective characteristics.13,26 Pumpkin consumption can help lower blood pressure via inhibiting angiotensin-1 converting enzyme, which is associated with the constriction of the blood vessels.The phytosterols, mixed tocopherols, carotenoids, and essential fatty acids in pumpkin can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and lower cholesterol.26 Phytosterols inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine.13 Pumpkin seeds have the third-highest phytosterol content among commonly consumed nuts and seeds. In general, the four dominant fatty acids in pumpkin seeds are stearic (8%), palmitic (13.3%), oleic (29%), and linoleic (47%).26 Research has confirmed that oleic acid has the potential to prevent atherosclerosis either by inhibiting the expression of adhesion molecules or by affecting nitric oxide production. Tocopherols provide cardiovascular protection due to antioxidant mechanisms and peroxyl radical scavenging activity. Consuming foods high in tocopherols is inversely associated with cardiovascular disease mortality.

A pilot study of 35 post-menopausal women found that consumption of 2 g of PSO daily for 12 weeks significantly increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol by 16% and decreased diastolic blood pressure by 7% compared to those participants consuming 2 g of wheat germ oil daily.13,21 Participants also experienced a decrease in severity of hot flashes, decreased occurrence of headaches, and reduced joint pain. This was attributed to the pumpkin seed’s high content of the phytoestrogens (265 mg/100 g). SDG is the predominant phytoestrogen in pumpkin seeds.21 In addition to its ability to reduce cholesterol levels, SDG is cancer preventive through its potent antioxidant action and ability to bind to alpha- and beta-estrogen receptors, blocking or antagonizing the effect of estrogen in some tissues.21,27 In fact, SDG supplementation is not only associated with improving cholesterol profile but has also been shown to improve bone density and may reduce the risk of breast cancer.27

Health Benefits for Diabetics

When included as a consistent part of the diet, pumpkin fruit’s high fiber and pectin content have been shown to control glucose levels and even reduce the need for insulin.1 Additionally, research confirms that pumpkin inhibits alpha-amylase and beta-glucosidase, which is associated with lowered blood glucose levels.7 Other bioactive compounds in pumpkin fruit include its protein-bound polysaccharides, which have been linked to a reduction in urination frequency and blood glucose levels in diabetics.1

Pumpkin flesh and pumpkin seeds have traditionally have been used for their anti-diabetic properties and are a promising dietary component ingredient for managing diabetes. Pumpkin flesh appears to have hypoglycemic effects attributed to several bioactive constituents including polysaccharides, para-aminobenzoic acid, sterols, proteins, peptides, and molecules such as trigonelline, nicotinic acid, and D-chiro-inositol. D-chiro-inositol is classified as an insulin sensitizer and plays a vital role in the anti-diabetic properties of pumpkin.Pumpkin flesh inhibits beta-glucosidase and alpha-amylase as well as angiotensin 1-converting enzyme which also contributes to its anti-diabetic potential. The array of tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta) present in raw pumpkin seeds also contribute potent antioxidant protection for diabetics and is associated with reducing oxidative markers, as well as high lipid profiles and glycemic levels.1

Anxiety-Relieving Benefits

As mentioned previously, pumpkin fruit contains GABA and the seeds contain tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. 250 g of pumpkin seeds deliver the equivalent of 1300 mL of L-tryptophan.28 Both of these neurotransmitters work to improve mood, promote feelings of well-being, and reduce overall anxiousness and sleeplessness.

In a small double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover pilot study with a wash-out period of one week between study sessions, researchers investigated whether consuming tryptophan-rich foods could boost serotonin levels and alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Participants with a social anxiety disorder were randomly assigned to start with a protein-sourced tryptophan (gourd seeds) in combination with carbohydrate or carbohydrate alone for one week. One week after the initial study session, participants received the opposite treatment.29 Researchers discovered that those participants who consumed the tryptophan-rich gourd seeds with carbohydrates before an anxiety-inducing test experienced significant (though not statistically significant) improvements in both subjective and objective measurements on the Endler Multidimensional Anxiety Scale compared with those participants who only consumed carbohydrates.13

Consumer Considerations

Raw pumpkin seeds are high in phytic acid, a major storage form of phosphorus in nuts and seeds.30 Up to 80% of the phosphorus in pumpkin seed is locked into an unusable form due to its tendency to form insoluble phytate complexes,30 and monogastric animals lack sufficient phytase enzymes in the digestive tract.31 A diet comprised of large amounts of phytate-rich foods results in a net loss of calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and manganese due to phytate-binding and mineral chelation as well as low phosphorus absorption. Additionally, phytic acid inhibits food-digesting enzymes such as pepsin, amylase, and trypsin.30,31

Typically, when nuts and seeds are processed for consumption, the outer inedible hull is removed which reduces phytic acid content. Techniques that remove phytic acid from nuts, seeds, and grains include milling, soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and roasting.31 Milling, the most commonly used method to remove phytic acid from grains, has a big disadvantage in that many minerals and dietary fibers are removed during the process.31 Soaking is widely used prior to sprouting and fermentation and activates endogenous phytase enzymes. Phytic acid content is significantly reduced during soaking plus cooking and increases the bioavailability of minerals. Sprouting or germinating grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds can reduce phytic acid content up to 40% without reducing nutritional value.30,31 Natural fermentation reduces phytic acid to an even greater extent than soaking alone and works via microbial action and activation of endogenous phytic acid enzymes. Based on accumulated evidence, it is recommended that these foods be soaked for 18 hours, dehydrated at very low temperatures, and then roasted or cooked to largely eliminate phytic acid content. The metabolic process of fermentation oxidizes carbohydrates to release energy without an external electron acceptor present.31 Low-temperature roasting of nuts and seeds is the least effective in reducing phytic acids and unfortunately, phytase, vitamin C, and other heat-sensitive nutrients as well. To offset the inherent challenges of consuming phytic acid-rich foods and minimize micronutrient losses, it is recommended to limit the consumption of phytic acid-rich foods and avoid consuming raw seeds.

Nutrient Profile32

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 cup raw 1-inch cubes [approx. 116 g])

30 calories
1.16 g protein
7.54 g carbohydrate
0.1 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup raw 1-inch cubes [approx. 116 g])

Excellent source of:

Vitamin A: 9,875 IU (197.5% DV)

Very good source of:

Vitamin C: 10.4 mg (17.3% DV)
Potassium: 394 mg (11.26% DV)

Good source of:

Iron: 0.93 mg (5.2% DV)
Phosphorus: 51 mg (5.1% DV)

Also provides:

Folate: 19 mcg (4.75% DV)
Vitamin E: 1.23 mg (4.6% DV)
Thiamin: 0.06 mg (4% DV)
Magnesium: 14 mg (3.5% DV)
Niacin: 0.7 mg (3.5% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.07 mg (3.5% DV)
Calcium: 24 mg (2.4% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 0.6 g (2.4% DV)
Vitamin K: 1.3 mcg (1.6% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. 

Recipe: Soaked and Roasted Pumpkin Seeds33


  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (fresh from the pumpkin is best)
  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1-3 tablespoons olive oil or melted coconut oil
  • Spices for roasting (optional)


  1. Soak: Place clean pumpkin seeds in a bowl and cover with warm water and salt. Let seeds sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
  2. Drain: Drain the water from the pumpkin seeds and allow the seeds to dry on a baking sheet for a few hours.
  3. Roast: Heat oven to 300°F. Toss seeds in oil and spices, if desired, and lay in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 20-30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

Spice Mix Ideas:

  • Cayenne and salt
  • Cinnamon, grated nutmeg, and ground ginger
  • Chili powder, lime zest, and salt
  • Paprika, dried sage, dried thyme, and salt




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  16. Dietary Fiber. Medical Encyclopedia. Medline Plus. Available at: Accessed on September 26, 2019.
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  25. Grzybek M, Kukula-Koch W, Strachecka, et al. Evaluation of anthelmintic activity and composition of pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo L.) seed extracts – in vitro and in vivo studies. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2016;17,1456-1477.
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  33. Soaked and roasted pumpkin seeds. Available at: Accessed on October 7, 2019.

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