(NaturalNews) Giving up those delicious salty snack foods is one of the hardest parts of healthy eating, and getting children to give them up is almost impossible. But what if we could replace them with a crunchy, munchy alternative that offered both great taste and great nutrition? Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, have brought a new meaning to snack foods. On their own pepitas are nutty tasting, crunchy, chewy and slightly sweet. When sea salt, herbs or spices are added, they turn into a nutritious snack that would please the biggest junk food addict.
Pepitas can be a hulled kernel or an unhulled whole seed that is raw or roasted. Pepitas have liberal usage in Mexican cuisine in such dishes as mole, and are ground for use in green sauces. In the Southwest and Latin America, pepitas have been eaten since the time of the Aztecs or earlier for their special flavor and health benefits.
Pepitas are one of nature's perfect foods
Pepitas offer an abundance of nutrients including amino acids, unsaturated fatty acids, and a wealth of minerals such as calcium, potassium, niacin, and phosphorous. They are high in most of the B vitamins, and vitamins C, D, E, and K. They are rich in beta carotene that can be converted into vitamin A as needed by the body, and also rich in the eye protective carotenoid lutein.
Snacking on just one handful of pepitas, about one ounce, provides a whopping 9 grams of body building protein, along with manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, copper and zinc.
Pepitas offer a wealth of health benefits
Pepitas are chocked full of monounsaturated oil that has been shown to interrupt the triggering of prostate cell multiplication by DHT, a product of testosterone conversion. The omega-3 fats found in pepitas are also being studied for their potential prostate benefits. The significant amounts of carotenoids in pepitas are of interest to researchers because men with higher amounts of caroteoids in their diets have a lowered risk for prostate enlargement. The high zinc content of pumpkin seeds adds to their prostate protective virtues.
Another reason for men to eat zinc-rich pepitas is their effect on bone mineral density. Although osteoporosis is usually thought of as a women's disease, it can affect older men, a group that suffers 30 percent of the hip fractures.
Pumpkin seeds offer powerful anti-inflammatory properties. The addition of pepitas to the diet was shown to work as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in reducing symptoms of inflammation. And they did this without any unwanted side effects or threat to the liver.
In fact, pepitas have recently been shown to be protective of the liver. In a recent study reported in the December, 2008 journal Food Chemistry and Toxicology, mice fed a mixture of pumpkin seeds and flax seeds showed their lipid parameters decreased significantly compared to controls. Plasma and liver fatty acid composition showed an increase of alpha linolenic acid and linoleic acid, monounsaturated acids, and a decrease of stearic fatty acids. Plasma and liver toxins decreased, and the efficiency of their antioxidant defense systems was improved.
Phytosterols are compounds found in plants with chemical structures similar to cholesterol. When the diet contains high levels of phytosterols, blood levels of cholesterol are reduced. Phytosterols also enhance the immune system response, and can help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. They are present in high amounts in seeds and nuts. Pistachio nuts and sunflower seeds are the richest in phytosterols, with pepitas coming in third of all the nuts and seeds usually eaten.
The oil in pepitas has an excellent ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. This ratio is important for cellular function and oxygenation. It is also why pepitas make hair glossy, skin clear, and energy levels high.
Pepitas can be eaten raw, cooked or roasted. Here are a few suggestions:
Add pepitas to salads or vegetable dishes to provide some textural variation.
Add pepitas to cereal, granola, trail mix, or mix with dried fruits
Use pepitas in cookie and muffin recipes.
Shred or grind pepitas and add to veggie or meat burgers.
Sprinkle pepitas on pasta dishes.
Sprouted or soaked organic pepitas offer best taste and nutrition
Like all nuts and seed, pepitas contain phytate, an enzyme inhibitor. Phytate prevents the nut or seed from sprouting prematurely, and makes unsoaked nuts and seeds extremely difficult to digest. Soaking them first replicates what nature does to get the nut or seed ready for germination and the release of the nutrients it contains. When the enzymes in the nut or seed are released, so is the flavor. Soaking makes nuts and seeds taste great.
Pepitas for soaking should be organic hulled pumpkin seeds with the shell removed, or a variety called naked seeds, which are actually grown without the shell. These can be bought online or from a health food store. To make soaked pepitas:
Step One: Put the pumpkin seeds in a fine mesh colander and rinse them well. Place the rinsed seeds into a wide-mouthed glass jar. Dissolve a pinch of sea salt in water, and pour the water over the seeds, using enough to cover them. Leave in a warm spot for 1 to 2 hours. The salt is needed to help activate enzymes that will then deactivate the enzyme inhibitors.
Step Two: Drain and rinse the seeds well and place them in the jar once again. Cover the jar with a breathable cloth and leave it in a cool, semi-lit location for no more than 8 to 12 hours.
Step Three: Rinse the seeds and spread on a clean dry surface or on a mesh drying rack. When they are dry, they are ready to eat or they can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for the rest of the day.
Step Four (for the ultimate in pepitas): After the seeds have been soaked, place them in a dehydrator and dehydrate according to dehydrator directions.
Dehydrating does not damage enzymes. Moisture evaporation from food acts as a cooling process and keeps the temperature below the actual air temperature in the dehydrator. In his book Enzyme Nutrition, Dr. Edward Howell explains that because of the difference in food temperature and air temperature, it is safe to dehydrate at settings up to 145 degrees because the temperature of the food will not exceed 118 degrees. Enzymes are most susceptible to damage by high heat while they are in a wet state. This is why cooking is so damaging to enzymes. Dehydration uses far less heat than cooking or baking. As the food becomes drier, the enzymes become more stable and can withstand temperatures of 118 degrees or higher.
Dehydrated pepitas can be kept in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Or do as the Aztecs did, and dry pepitas in the sun.
Get creative with pepitas
To make a salty, crunch snack food the whole family will love, add extra sea salt to the soaking water and dehydrate the pepitas. Use plastic or paper bags to create snack packs or lunch packs.
Add cilantro, jalapeno, lime, garlic, tamari, raw cacoa, or any of the herbs and spices that appeal.
Check out the array of already prepared organic sprouted pumpkin seeds
Several online retailers that specialize in live foods sell organic sprouted dehydrated pepitas. Many use the term pumpkin seeds. Their crunchy, delicious products are available with or without added salt. Some specialize in dressed up versions with a wealth of flavors, and some offer mixes of pumpkin seeds with other sprouted nuts and seed and as part of trail mixes with dried fruits. Organic sprouted pumpkin seeds are also available at many health food stores.
Pradeep Chauhan, Health Benefits of Pumpkin Seeds, americanchronical.com.
Pumpkin Seeds, whfoods.com.
How to Sprout Pumpkin Seeds, ehow.com
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.