I love to eat squash this time of year. Are they all created equal? Is one type healthier than the others?
You can buy winter squash in the supermarket most of the year, but now is the time to enjoy this season's harvest when flavours are at their best and nutrients are at their peak. While all types of squash are healthy additions to your fall menu, there is one that outshines the others when it comes to nutrient content.
The most common winter squashes you'll find in grocery stores and farmer's markets are butternut, acorn, hubbard and spaghetti squash. Other varieties include buttercup, kabocha, delicata, turban, sweet dumpling and sugar pumpkin. (My nutrient showdown includes butternut, acorn, hubbard and spaghetti squashes, the four varieties that have complete nutritional information.)
Winter squash delivers on the nutrition front. In general, it's a good source of magnesium and potassium, minerals tied to healthy blood pressure. Squash also serves up folate, vitamin C and calcium. And it's one of the top food sources of beta-carotene, a phytochemical the body changes to vitamin A. (Vitamin A supports healthy vision and immune function.) Beta-carotene also acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from free-radical damage.
If you choose the right squash, you'll also get plenty of fibre, mainly soluble fibre, the type that helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In fact, one-half cup of winter squash has as much soluble fibre as one cup of lentils, one cup of barley or three-quarters of a cup of cooked oat bran. Impressive.
So which winter squash is the overall nutrient heavyweight? Acorn squash wins the match. It offers more folate, calcium, magnesium (nearly one-third of a day's worth in one cup) and potassium than butternut, hubbard and spaghetti squash. Eat one cup of cooked acorn squash and you'll get more potassium (896 milligrams) than if you ate two medium bananas (844 mg). Who knew? (Adults need 4,700 mg of potassium each day.)
Acorn squash is no slouch when it comes to fibre, either. One cup of cooked squash offers nine grams of fibre, putting a sizeable dent in your daily requirement. Adults, aged 19 to 50, need 38 g (men) and 25 g (women) a day; older men and women require 30 and 21 grams, respectively.
Second place goes to butternut squash, outscoring acorn, hubbard and spaghetti squash on vitamin C and beta-carotene. There is no official recommended intake for beta-carotene but experts suggest a daily intake of 3 to 6 mg helps prevent disease. One cup of cooked butternut squash supplies 9.4 mg of the antioxidant. Butternut squash is also a decent source of alpha-carotene, a cousin of beta-carotene that's thought to guard against cancer.
Spaghetti squash had the lowest overall nutrition score. But that doesn't mean it's void of nutrients. And, at only 42 calories per cup, spaghetti squash is a tasty low-carbohydrate, low-calorie alternative for pasta noodles.
Acorn squash may outperform other types of squash when it comes to certain vitamins and minerals, but don't limit yourself to eating only one type of squash this season. Mix it up to add a variety of nutrients and flavours to your meals.
Winter squash can be steamed, sautéed, grilled, microwaved or roasted (my favourite). Roasting intensifies the flavour of squash and gives you the opportunity to season it while it cooks. Subtle flavour boosts include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, maple syrup, rosemary, cumin, smoked paprika and chipotle chili powder. (Roast for 40 to 45 minutes at 400 F, or until fork-tender. Roasted squash freezes well.)
Versatility is one of the reasons I love to eat squash this time of year. While it's a delicious side dish eaten on its own, its sweet and nutty flavour lends itself to so many dishes. Add cubes of roasted squash to green salads, quinoa and brown-rice pilafs, black-bean burritos, chili, stews and casseroles. Blend roasted squash into soups: squash and pear, squash and apple, and squash and carrot are all delicious combos.
Add puréed cooked squash to smoothies, pasta sauces and muffin and pancake batters. Make squash fries by baking strips of winter squash tossed lightly in olive oil and seasonings. Or for a vegetarian meal, stuff half a baked squash with cooked brown rice, lentils and chopped walnuts and dried apricots; bake for an additional 15 minutes.
Winter squash by the numbers
Nutrient values are for one cup, cooked.
115 calories, 30 g carbohydrate, 9 g fibre, 90 mg calcium, 88 mg magnesium, 22 mg vitamin C, 39 mcg folate, 1.2 mg beta-carotene
82 calories, 21.5 g carbohydrate, 6.6 g fibre, 84 mg calcium, 59 mg magnesium, 31 mg vitamin C, 39 mcg folate, 9.4 mg beta-carotene
102 calories, 22 g carbohydrate, 10 g fibre, 35 mg calcium, 45 mg magnesium, 19.5 mg vitamin C, 33 mcg folate, 7.3 mg beta-carotene
42 calories, 10 g carbohydrate, 2.2 g fibre, 33 mg calcium, 17 mg magnesium, 5 mg vitamin C, 12 mcg folate, 0.09 mg beta-carotene
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.