Foods we love: Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are packed metabolic-friendly micronutrients like magnesium. Here’s how to buy, store, and cook with these seeds year-round.

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The Basics

When you think of “pumpkin seeds,” you may be picturing the large, flat, cream-colored seeds you find inside the pumpkins you carve around Halloween. Those are, in fact, pumpkin seeds with the shell on (the actual seed is inside). But “pumpkin seeds” can also refer to pepitas, which are pumpkin seeds without shells that can be grown in specific varieties of pumpkins. Pepitas are thin-skinned and green, and the type you’re most likely to find at the grocery store. Both are edible, but store-bought pepitas save you the laborious shelling process. 

All pumpkin seeds belong to the gourd family (or Cucurbitaceae) and are native to North America, Central America, and South America. The word “pepita” comes from the Spanish phrase “pepita de calabaza,” which means “little seed of squash.” They’ve got incredible nutrient content: In 1/4 cup of pepitas, you get 10 grams of protein and a remarkably high proportion of essential amino acids, as well as 16 grams of fat (including linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids). You’ll also get 2 grams of fiber and just 3.5 grams of carbohydrates—not to mention 64% of your daily recommended intake (DRI) of micronutrients, including manganese, 32% DRI of phosphorus, 48% DRI of copper, 45% DRI of magnesium, and 23% DRI of zinc.

While it’s easy to focus on macronutrients—fat, protein, and carbs—micronutrients like these are equally essential, especially when we think about food not just as fuel but also as molecular information. Micronutrients are like the tools that assist your cells in carrying out their usual functions. Pumpkin seeds are packed with these micronutrients that are crucial for optimizing overall health and metabolic fitness.

Metabolic Punch

One of the most impactful metabolic aspects of pumpkin seeds is their impressive magnesium content. This vital mineral plays a role in more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body, making it a critical metabolic cofactor. (Think of cofactors as helper molecules for an enzyme’s activity; enzymes are cellular “machines” that do vital chemical reactions.)

According to research, magnesium appears to increase insulin sensitivity, which improves your body’s ability to process glucose efficiently. One study found that three months of magnesium supplementation in people with Type 2 diabetes helped lower A1C levels and insulin resistance

Researchers have also looked at the effect of pumpkin seeds directly on glucose control. One study found that adults who mixed around 1/2 cup shelled and crushed pumpkin seeds into a high-carb meal of a muffin and a shake had a 35% reduction in total glycemic response compared to people who didn’t add the pumpkin seeds. 

Buying Advice

  • Buy raw (organic, if possible) pumpkin seeds, not roasted. Commercial roasting at high temperatures can damage the beneficial fats in these seeds.
  • Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The high-fat content in pumpkin seeds means they’re prone to rancidity when exposed to air and light.
  • Eat within three to four months of buying when pumpkin seeds are at their peak freshness.
  • Bonus: They tend to be economical and much less expensive than organic nuts. 

 Tips for Using

  • While you don’t have to grind pumpkin seeds, it can make it easier for your digestive system to break them down. Pulse pumpkin seeds in a small food processor until they form a crumbly, crunchy topping that you can sprinkle on top of yogurt, smoothies, soup, salad, or any meal.
  • If you roast pumpkin seeds, spread them in an even layer on a baking sheet and put them in the oven at 300 degrees F for 15-20 minutes max. Roasting at higher temps and longer than 20 minutes changes the fat content, making it less beneficial.
  • To roast seeds you’ve excavated yourself, make sure you remove the seeds immediately after cutting into the pumpkin to prevent bacteria growth. Then, clean them thoroughly (soaking in water and rubbing the seeds with 1/4 to 1/2 cup kosher salt helps remove the stringy pumpkin fibers) and rinse well with hot water or boil for 5 minutes. You’ll also want to make sure they’re thoroughly dry before roasting.
  • Spice them up. Pumpkin seeds are like tofu in that they’re a blank canvas for any flavor. Toss 1 cup dry pumpkin seeds in 1 teaspoon oil (olive, avocado, and melted coconut oil all work well) and add 1 teaspoon of whatever seasoning you like. For something sweet, opt for a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Craving a savory snack? Add smoked paprika, chili powder, and cumin or rosemary, thyme, and garlic.   

Pumpkin Seed Recipes

Pumpkin seed pesto. Swap pumpkin seeds for pine nuts in this delicious sauce by pulsing 1/2 cup each roasted pumpkin seeds and olive oil with 1 cup basil, 1/2 cup parsley, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and salt to taste.

Pumpkin seed butter. Just like you’d make your own peanut or almond butter, blend whole pumpkin seeds in a food processor until smooth, and add sea salt to taste.

Upgrade your homemade nut milk. Use a 1:4 ratio—one part nuts and seeds to four parts water—and flavor with vanilla and a pinch of salt. You can sweeten it with a seeded date or two, or stevia, monk fruit, or allulose. The Levels team’s favorite mix is 1/4 cup each pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, brazil nuts, and walnuts blended with 4 cups water, plus vanilla and a pinch of salt. It’s loaded with more nutrients than the expensive nut milks you’ll find at the grocery store. And don’t be surprised, nut milks with pumpkin seeds will be green!