Science Thursday: Pumpkins

Happy Science Thursday! This week we’re talking about one of my favorite plantables, pumpkins!

He’s so cuuuute!!!

We will not, however, be talking about pumpkin spice. pumpkin spice goes on or with pumpkin, and so doesn’t contain any pumpkin, and so has no place here. #nopumpkinspice

Cultivation

Pumpkins are from the squash family, and are as such native to North America. They can actually be grown on all non-Antarctica continents, but we had them first. Pumpkins are a winter squash, meaning that they’re picked as a mature fruit late in the summer growing season, and they have a longer shelf life than “summer squash” like zucchini. They’re pretty easy to grow, too.

Because pumpkin seedlings are very sensitive to the weather, seeds should be planted after all possibly of frost has passed (around the end of March for PA). After that, pumpkins have no problem taking control. One year I thought it would be fun to plant pumpkins in my front yard gardens, and since the garden was mostly mulch I planted 12 seeds, thinking I would get one or two plants and it would be great. All 12 seeds took root. It was the hardest thing in the world to have to decide which of my little pumpkin babies would survive and which wouldn’t.

Once you have seedlings, you have to keep an eye on things, because the seedling will quickly become a vine, and you want to make sure the vine doesn’t go where you don’t want it or choke out other plants. Other than that, it’s a matter of waiting for cute little flowers to appear.

So pretty.

When flowers appear, and they’ll appear in abundance, you will need to start pollinating. If you live in a place with a lot of bees or butterflies, you might be able to leave it up to nature, but in most cases you’ll have to do it yourself. Don’t worry. It’s not as messy as animal husbandry. You have two kinds of flowers on your vine, male and female. The female flower has a green ball right beneath the bloom, where the male does not.

All you need to do is put the pollen from the male flower on the pistil of the female flower. People have varying ways of doing this, but I found that taking out the male stamen with a pair of tweezers and rubbing all over the pistil worked pretty well. Once your pumpkins start to grow, you can leave them be until you’re ready to pick them, or you can turn them so they don’t get a flat spot. I also recommend singing or talking to your little pumpkins, because it makes them happy and they grow better.

Eating

If growing pumpkins isn’t your thing (but seriously what’s wrong with you?) you can still enjoy them. Everything except the thick ropy part of the vine is edible, and most of it’s pretty good (I’ve never tried the leaves or flowers, but they’re pretty, so I assume they’re good).

The squishy pulp inside of the pumpkin is what goes into sweet pie filling (along with sweeter butternut squash), but you can grill up the rind if you’re into something more savory. As for the seeds, they can go either way. My mom and I roasted pumpkin seeds this weekend, and we did some with salt and some with honey and unrefined sugar. Candied pumpkin seeds is where it’s at!

If you roast the seeds without the white outer husk (which we didn’t do. Too much work.) you will have pumpkin seed oil as a byproduct. And here’s a fun little factoid for you: pumpkin seed oil is green! The oil is high in fatty acids, and supposedly improves prostate health.

The rest of the pumpkin is pretty healthy for you, too. The seeds are high in protein, magnesium, copper, and zinc (tasty metals) and the pulp and rind are high in good things like Vitamin A (helps your immune system, eyes, and skin), Vitamin C, and Potassium. Pumpkin is also very low in fat. 100 grams of raw pumpkin, you have 0.1 gram of fat. 100 grams is about the size of a stick of butter, half an apple, or two fried eggs (depending of the density, the volume can differ).

Pumpkin is even good for your pets. Canned pumpkin can help with intestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea, and hairballs, and raw pumpkin is sometimes given to poultry to maintain egg production in the winter.

Fun

If growing or eating pumpkins aren’t your thing, there is still plenty of fun to be had with these winter squash. Because they have a substantial shelf-life, they make lovely fall decorations, carved or whole. If you’re creative and like a little bit of mess, carving Jack-o’-lanterns is for you! How detailed you get is up to you.

You could make your own herd!

For the more industrial, there is pumpkin chunking or liquid nitrogen. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive building competition, where teams or individuals build machines to launch pumpkins large distances. Immersing a pumpkin in liquid nitrogen for a couple of hours will not only make the pumpkin stone-like (and very cold), but if you wait until dark and smash the pumpkin (by dropping it off of a tall building and onto concrete, for instance) you should be able to witness luminescence when it shatters (pumpkin SMASH!).

And if after all of that you still haven’t found a reason to love pumpkins, then you’re not a real human and I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

Science Thursday: Sugar

As you may or may not know, I originally started this blog to document the time I gave up refined sugar for lent. That path kind of fizzled out because there wasn’t really much to write about. Eating: I ate salad. A lot. Recipes: either they were already sugar-free or you substitute in raw sugar/honey. How it affected my body: I covered that in my first or second post. In short, it was a very monotonous topic, though I did learn a lot about sugar and what it does to the body. Since candy and sweets are a pretty big part of October and Halloween, I thought I’d give you the deets on the sweet stuff you’re eating this month, and  I’m using an itemized list, which is one of my favorite things.

Along with sweaters and scarfs and old books and soup and chocolate cake and puppies and tea…

1. Glucose, Dextrose, Grape Sugar

Oh yeah, we’re getting science-y up in here. Glucose is a naturally occurring sugar found in plant things, and is the product of photosynthesis (Quick! What’s the chemical formula for glucose??) Glucose is also what out body converts most of the carbs we eat into, and it’s found in animal blood (yum!). When glucose is added to food, it’s usually extracted from a starch. In fact, it’s a pretty popular practice to take glucose extracted from corn and convert some of the glucose in fructose, giving you….high fructose corn syrup!!

2. Fructose

Ohhhh you know that word, don’t you! And it’s a scary word, right? Wrong. Fructose is also a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit, roots, sugar cane and honey, and it’s considered the sweetest of the sugars (it always remembers your anniversary and buys pretty flowers). Because of Fructose’s sweetness, it’s the most common component added to food to change the flavor, and this is “bad”. Why you ask? Well, I suggest that you click on over to my first post on sugar and read why. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

If you decided to skip your reading assignment (-10 points!) here’s the summed up version: Most sugars added to food are refined, and refining is a process that removes the nutrients that naturally occur alongside the sugar to make it digestible (and those nutrients become molasses). Oopsie! Annnnd, almost everything you eat has sugar in it. Don’t believe me?

Also, fructose is absorbed in your large intestine, and this process leads to increased water in your intestine, which can lead to diarrhea! YUM!

3. Sucrose

Sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar or the stuff in your Halloween candy, is the molecular combination of fructose and glucose. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Kind of like…high fructose corn syrup?!? That’s because they’re the same thing!!

(Edit: while sucrose, fructose, and glucose are all made up of the same basic components, how those components are combined differs, which makes a difference in how your body processes them. Fructose and glucose are monosaccharides, meaning the consist of only one molecule, whereas sucrose is one fructose molecule bound to one glucose molecule, so to digest sucrose your body first must break it up into those two separate molecules. Because of this, sucrose takes longer to digest than the other simple sugars.)

Sucrose is also extracted from beets, and is sold as “beet sugar” to hipsters everywhere.

4. Maltose

Maltose is a pretty boring sugar to its scandalous brethren. It occurs in grains, and is formed in your body when you digest starch. That’s it.

5. Lactose

Here’s a trouble-maker for you. Lactose is formed by the molecular bonding of glucose with galactose. Lactose is broken down in the body by lactase, which children have but not all adults do, leading to lactose-intolerance. Lactase is added to dairy products to produce “Lactose free” products, and it’s sold in pill form to alleviate the symptoms of lactose intolerance. The amount of lactase absent in a person’s system varies, which is why some people are “more” lactose intolerant than others and need to pop a couple more lactaids.

6. Stevia

Stevia is a non-sugar sweetener from a plant 300 times sweeter than sucrose. One of the newest sugar-alternative fads, it sounds pretty good, until you go to the bathroom. That’s right, folks, stevia has a bit of a laxative effect. It says so right on the box. Other than that, stevia is considered to be pretty good for you, though none of the health claims (except for the pooping) have been conclusively proven in scientific study. So take that with a grain of sucrose (ha!).

7. Sweet’n Low, Splenda, and aspartame

I’m combining these they’re because they’re pretty basic in composition. Sweet’n Low is saccharin+dextrose+cream of tartar. Saccharin is a chemical similar to aspartame, and over time it creates a glucose intolerance in your body and messes that crap out of your gut (pun intended). There have also been studies that suggest saccharin triggers a release of insulin, leading to diabetes, but this hasn’t been fully proven either (I’m not likely to risk it).

Splenda is sugar derivative containing sucralose, which is indigestible by the human body. To process sucralose, your kidneys and lower intestine have to work harder, which over time really just isn’t good for you. Is cutting the calories really worth it?

Aspartame is a chemical sweetener most commonly found in diet sodas. While scientifically aspartame is “not all that bad for you,” it doesn’t release the same triggers in your body that sugar does, such as telling your body that you’ve actually consumed something. That’s why some say that diet soda leads to obesity, because if your body isn’t aware that it’s eating, it’ll eat (or drink) more.

8. Monk Fruit

Monk fruit is another non-sugar plant-based sweetener. That is about the extent of my knowledge. The fruit is native to China and Thailand, and the FDA labeled it as safe pretty quickly, which leads me to believe that it’s a lot better than other alternative sweeteners. It’s also 300 times sweeter than sucrose.

So what does this mean for your Halloween snacking? It means you don’t really need to worry about the sugar in your mini Hershey bars. You’re probably not going to eat 1000 of them (though if you did I would be kind of impressed), and the sugar content isn’t as horrible as some of the alternatives. Moderation is always best, but if you overindulge, don’t stress. Go ahead and have a sweet and happy Halloween.