History and Background
What is Squash?
Squash is an edible fruit that comes from the herbaceous vines of the Cucurbita genus, itself stemming from the family Cucurbitaceae, that are native to the Americas, specifically the Andes mountain range in the south and modern-day Central America. Though they technically qualify as fruits according to their botanical classification, they are usually considered vegetables from a popular and culinary standpoint. Synonyms for squash include the pumpkin and gourd, the latter relating etymologically to the genus and family Latin name origins.
History of Squash
The origins of squash lie in Central and South America and are believed to specifically trace back to a locus somewhere in modern-day Mexico. For centuries they were known to the various indigenous peoples of the Americas, long before becoming known to later settlers from Europe and to the rest of the world. When settlers from Europe finally did arrive in the Americas, they generally had mixed feelings towards the crop, with some adopting it rather quickly and others mostly ignoring it until they realized that particular strains could help them survive the harsh winter months. They then made their own unique dishes with the fruit, such as pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup. Apart from its value as a food item, squash also became culturally significant and is still used in holiday celebrations today in the United States as a decoration.
Cultivation of Squash
At first, cultivated exclusively in the Americas to which it is native, European colonization catalyzed the eventual global cultivation of squash. Today, 5 out of the 20 species that grow in the Americas are cultivated. In the United States and elsewhere, selective breeding and hybridization of these species have created squash with a large variety of textures and colors. While some are meant for consumption, others are simply for display, such as during holidays. Certain species like winter squash are cultivated for their hardiness and ability to be stored for long periods in harsh conditions, whereas others give squash that can be grown and consumed quickly, such as summer squash. The following are all the different varieties of squash and their individual characteristics:
Smaller and less mature, the summer strain of squash is meant for immediate consumption rather than storage, and as such, it is best stored in a plastic bag in a refrigerator for a few days. It can be further divided into four more types: crookneck, yellow and green zucchini, straight neck, and scallop or pattypan. It is thin-skinned and tender, with high water content and is mild and sweet to the taste. Its seeds are soft and contain high concentrations of niacin, vitamin A and vitamin C. Smaller ones with smooth skin are better to eat.
The name of this variety of warm weather crop stems from its ability to be stored without refrigeration in a dark and cool place for a month, for example, during winter. Pumpkins and spaghetti, and acorn squash are some of the more common types of winter squash. In contrast to its summer counterpart, this type of squash is more mature and can be stored for later consumption and use. Their seeds contain high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, and iron. Their skin is thick and inedible, while their flesh is tougher. Hence, they must be peeled before cooking, which takes a longer time than summer squash. The ideal winter squash is heavy with a hard, deeply hued, and smooth skin.
This variety of squash derives its name from its shape and is the most frequently available type of squash year-round. It is fleshy, moist, and fibrous on the inside and ribbed and hard, yet edible, on the outside.
This variety of squash is one of the most popular ones, with the highest concentrations of vitamin A and vitamin C out of the other squash varieties. It is distinguishable by its long foot, bell shape, thin skin, butterscotch hue, and dense and creamy interior.
This variety of squash is the largest winter squash, with a hard outer skin and a savory and sweet inner flesh that makes it suitable for purées and dessert fillings.
This familiar, brightly colored squash with a sweet, dense, and mellow interior is tasty and healthy. In cooking, it is used to make condiments and dessert fillings, while otherwise, it is used for display and hollowed out with a carved in face and candle inserted inside to make a jack-o-lantern during the Halloween holiday.
The name of this mild variety of squash derives from the fact that the flesh turns into strands upon being cooked.
This green-hued squash is packed with nutrients and is regarded and used as a vegetable in many savory dishes.
Patty Pan Squash
This variety of squash is small and circular with curved edges and is packed full of essential minerals and vitamins that convey many benefits to the consumer’s health.
This variety of squash, also called Bohemian, peanut, or sweet potato squash, has an oblong shape, edible skin, and creamy and sweet flesh, making it suitable for roasting and stuffing. Delicata squash belongs to the summer squash family but is regarded as a member of the winter squash family.
Yellow Crookneck Squash
As the name suggests, this variety of summer squash, among the most popular of its kind, has a yellow coloration and curved end.
Like the zucchini, this variety of squash, known as zuchetta, hails from Italy, where it is still popular, and has a higher resistance to pests than other squash strains, albeit with a slower rate of growth than them.
Cooking with Squash
The culinary history of squash is a long one, stretching back to the native peoples of the Americas, on to the pilgrims from Europe who used it to survive the winters and created pumpkin pie by cooking the puréed innards enclosed within the hard outer layer to make a savory soup within a makeshift bowl, and into the modern-day, where it is used in soups and sweets as well as for festive adornments. Additionally, it has piqued widespread interest due to its purported health benefits. It is rich in nutrients like vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and dietary fibers, and water. Its seeds and pulp can be eaten directly, mixed into soups, smoothies, and dishes, and used as a flavoring for ice cream and filling for pies. As mentioned previously, different varieties of squash have different flavors and textures, making them better suited for certain dishes than for others. When consumed in moderation, the health benefits of squash are numerous. Some of these benefits include but are not limited to:
Health Benefits of Squash
1. Weight Loss
The dietary fibers and water contained in squash, which is of low caloric content, can keep you hydrated and feeling full, thus allowing you to combat cravings and lose weight in the long term.
2. Beauty and cosmetics
The high vitamin A content of squash makes it beneficial for the hair and skin.
3. Heart Health
Yellow squash, with its low fat and cholesterol and high magnesium, lowers the risk of stroke and heart disease. Both magnesium and potassium help reduce hypertension, and folate or vitamin B lowers cholesterol and removes the harmful by-product homocysteine, leading to heart attacks and strokes. The reduction in cholesterol also reduces atherosclerosis.
The beta-carotene and vitamin C found in summer and acorn squash help counter the buildup of free radical by-products of oxidation reactions, thereby slowing aging, cancer, asthma, and various gradual degenerative diseases. In preventing oxidized cholesterol from building up in blood vessel walls, they also lower atherosclerosis risk.
5. Eye Health
Squash contains lutein and carotenoids, which prevent the onset of eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration.
6. Bone Health
Squash contains an abundance of vitamins and minerals that promote proper bone growth and maintenance.
7. Digestive Health
The many dietary fibers contained in squash, particularly in the peels or rinds of certain varieties, help prevent constipation and facilitate digestion and the removal of cholesterol and toxins from the body, which can lower blood sugar levels and prevent diseases like diabetes.
7. Men’s Health
Yellow squash helps manage BPH or benign prostatic hypertrophy symptoms and therefore slows the degeneration of sexual and urinary functions.
8. Women’s Health
The high amount of the mineral manganese found in summer squash helps manage PMS symptoms or pre-menstrual syndrome.
9. Immune Health
The vitamin C in squash acts as an immune system booster, helping prevent allergies and colds.
10. Vegetable Source of Protein
While the protein content of squash is not very high, it is still significant, allowing it to be eaten as an alternative or a supplement to meats, which also contain high amounts of fat.
11. Muscle and Nerve Health
The electrolytes in butternut squash facilitate muscle contraction and stimulate nerve impulses, thus alleviating muscle cramps and maintaining a regular heartbeat.
Side Effects of Squash
1. Weight gain
Despite the ability to consume squash to help lose weight, the opposite can occur for those who consume it. However, this has less to do with the vegetable itself and more to do with what it is consumed with. For example, making smoothies or other items with added sugars will offset the squash’s benefits. Also, the seeds do have a high caloric content, meaning that consuming too many of them can lead to weight gain despite their touted health benefits.
2. Digestive problems
Though the fibers in squash can regulate and greatly improve digestive health, excessive consumption can cause digestive issues like bloating and indigestion.
As consuming regular amounts of squash can lower blood sugar, consuming too much can lower blood sugar to dangerously low levels.
As the potassium in squash helps dilate blood vessels and lower the risk of high blood pressure, it follows that excess consumption of squash can lower blood pressure to dangerously low levels.
5. Antioxidative stress
Antioxidants are compounds, usually found in fruits and vegetables, that reduce the buildup of free radicals in the body, therefore slowing the progression of oxidative stress, cancer, and related diseases. However, excess consumption of antioxidants can lead to antioxidative stress, weakening the immune system’s normal defense mechanisms against new threats.
6. Pregnancy risks
Once again, the risk mostly stems from over-consumption, and one should talk with a doctor to assess the potential reaction of other medications with the consumed squash.
7. Allergic reactions
If you have any allergies to any type of squash, it is advisable not to consume them, as consumption could result in asphyxia, rashes, and other symptoms.
Summary and Review
Squash is a unique crop whose history stretches back into the Americas to which it is native, used by both indigenous peoples and later settlers before being cultivated globally. As it has several other names, multiple varieties, and even a different classification based on its use, it is unlike any other. Not only that, but in addition to consumption as food, it can also be used for decoration, storage, and hair and skin health. Its low-calorie content and high mineral content and vitamins provide high nutritional value and translate into many health benefits, the only real adverse effects resulting from excess consumption rather than the squash itself. The many different strains each contain their own tastes and textures and can be stored and prepared according to the individual’s choosing. Even if the particular taste is not to your liking, the health benefits alone certainly make something that can be incorporated into your diet or at least given a try.