Wait ... Is Pumpkin a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov
Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov

Whether you're sipping on a PSL or picking up a fresh gourd to make an annual Jack-o'-Lantern, pumpkins are top of mind for most during fall. Wandering through a pumpkin patch or a local farmer's market, you might find yourself wondering: "Is pumpkin a fruit?"

You might associate pumpkins with the vegetable patch, but these squashes — both the decorative variety we love to spotlight this time of year and the best ingredient in standards like pumpkin pie — are indeed fruits. Mind blown, right?

Pumpkins are often mistaken for vegetables because the classic variety (i.e. the kind we use at Halloween) is actually not naturally sweet, explains Celine Beitchman, the director of nutrition at New York's Institute of Culinary Education. But there are 30+ varieties of pumpkins grown and sold in popular markets, and some are naturally sweet like other fruits we know and love — a few of Beitchman's favorites include heirloom Jarrahdale and Kabocha pumpkins, often utilized in Japanese cuisine for their coyly sweet flavor profile.

Pumpkins are equally as polarizing as avocados and tomatoes in the fruit versus vegetable debate. But botanists don't categorize fruits and vegetables by whether they taste sweet or savory: It's all about the anatomy.

What's a fruit, then?

Rather than considering the flavor or when you harvest the crop, it's important to think of how the produce grows. Per official definitions published by the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Fruit, in its strict botanical sense, [is] the fleshy or dry ripened ovary of a plant, enclosing the seed or seeds." They also tend to grow from the flowers of the plants. That definition includes produce popularly thought of as fruit — including apples, bananas and berries — but it also applies to beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives, avocados and yes, pumpkin.

Carve a jack-o'-lantern and you'll encounter the stringy orange pulp and many seeds inside. Those seeds — also called pepitas — provide all the proof you need. In fact, New Hampshire officially named pumpkin its state fruit in 2006! When it comes to pumpkin, the word itself has no botanical meaning, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. The round, orange things we call pumpkins technically qualify squash since they're part of the Cucurbitaceae family, which contains 700 different species.

What is a vegetable?

If you're wondering what really counts as a vegetable then, just think of all the other edible parts of plants. That can include the leaves (lettuce), stem (asparagus), roots (carrots), tubers (potatoes), bulbs (onions), or flowers (artichokes). While pumpkins are super stately and feel like they have all of the bells and whistles just as these other seasonal crops — at the very least, a stem — they're just variations of the same species. Big pumpkins, mini pumpkins, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, zucchini, and gourds are all different cultivars of the same species: Cucurbita pepo, which may have been traced back to the Oaxaca region of Mexico as far back as 9,000 years ago, per Economic Botany.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether you call pumpkins a fruit, vegetable, squash or gourd. Eating more pumpkin, whether you're munching on fiber-packed pumpkin seeds, a hearty fall dinner or a cozy soup, is definitely the right move, Bietchman explains. Unlike other vegetables, it's best to keep pumpkins whole and in cold, dry storage until you're ready to cook with them at home; cutting them open and storing parts in the fridge can quickly lead to mold. "It's always a good idea to process it down by peeling, cutting it, storing it in chunks or steaming it and purée it before storing," Bietchman adds.

Cooking pumpkin while it's fresh is a great way to ensure you're retaining most all of its ingredients. Pumpkins are naturally chock full of minerals like potassium and magnesium, which help to regulate your blood pressure, as well as iron sources, explains Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN. "Plus the fiber content of pumpkin is filling and helps stabilize blood sugar, which will keep your energy up throughout the day."

Bring on the pumpkin soup!

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