Anyone who has scooped out a jack-o-lantern around Halloween is familiar with the processing of pumpkin seeds. The flat, white seeds make a halfway decent snack after they’ve been removed from the gooey pulp, sorted, rinsed, dried, oiled, seasoned and baked at high heat. But even after these steps, the seeds can be a bit of tough chew — which has made this yearly tradition strictly seasonal.
But pumpkin seeds tap into several current trends that make them an ingredient not only with year-round appeal, but also one bred specifically for this moment. They offer high protein and omega-3 content for plant-based diets, have an allergy-friendly reputation, and a mild taste that works well with sweet and savory flavors to add a dynamic element to everything from smoothies to snacks. These qualities have also made the seeds in demand: Technavio projects the pumpkin seeds market to grow by $631.1 million from 2020 to 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of nearly 13% during this time period.
Recently, growers have cultivated pumpkin varietals that produce hulless seeds, or pepitas, that are easier to chew and digest. In the Finger Lakes region of New York, several family farms have been growing pumpkins first bred in the Styria region of Austria. Greg Woodworth, co-founder of Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods, a Geneva, New York-based supplier of squash seeds, oils and snacks, said these oilseed pumpkins have a rather distinctive shape and appearance.
“It looks a lot like an orange pumpkin with green mottled stripes and patterning on the outside,” he said. “And then when you cut them open … the seeds inside are green. They're not white, and there's no shell.” The green coating is a type of membrane around the kernel of the seed. Woodworth estimated that the pumpkins, which are bred specifically for their seeds and not their flesh, offer roughly half a pound of seeds in each 5-pound squash.
Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods sources its seeds from Styrian pumpkins grown by its longtime business partner Martin Farms, Brockport, New York. It sells the seeds raw or as part of its own brined and roasted snack line direct-to-consumer and at local retailers, as well as powdered and cold-pressed into oil. Stony Brook also supplies the bulk bins at Wegmans, and it sells wholesale to small manufacturers such as Rockit Snacks, a provider of flavor-coated pumpkin seed snacks.
While China is the global leader in food pumpkins and pepitas, Stony Brook's pumpkin seeds are domestically grown. This means they also are priced at a premium to Chinese-grown pepitas, but Woodworth said customers seem to appreciate the local sourcing and transparent supply chain of the New York-grown Styrian pumpkin seeds.
Function meets flavor to keep pumpkin seeds on top of trends
Regardless of where they’re grown, pumpkin seeds are small but mighty in terms of nutritional value. According to the USDA’s FoodData Central database, each one-third cup, 33-gram serving of pumpkin seeds contains 10 grams of protein, more than 20 mg of calcium and 2.7 mg of iron. They are also a good source of omega-3s, which can provide vegans and vegetarians a way to add the essential fatty acid to their diet.
Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition with the University of Maine’s School of Food & Agriculture, pointed to pumpkin seeds’ fiber and magnesium content as especially notable. They are one of the best natural sources of magnesium, providing 37% of the recommended daily intake for the mineral, and supply 2 grams of fiber per serving, according to the USDA.
“Those are both nutrients that people need, especially if they have got Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes,” Camire said.
Medical studies have also found the high antioxidant content of pumpkin seeds may be effective against certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancers.
In addition, pumpkin seeds contain a small amount of tryptophan — the amino acid also found in turkey that has the potential to help with sleeplessness and anxiety, issues that many consumers are struggling with during the pandemic. In fact, pumpkin seed flour is the natural source of tryptophan in ZenBev, a drink mix that its manufacturer claims aids in sleep.
In its Snacking Solutions report, Cargill called out pumpkin seeds — along with CBD, matcha, turmeric and probiotics — as ingredients that can add a functional edge to the next generation of snacks. And manufacturers have been tossing pepitas in everything from snack mixes to granola to bars to cereals as a way to boost the nutritional profile of products.
In December, Ocean Spray introduced its first fruit and nut snack mix, Craveology. The farmer-owned cooperative picked pumpkin seeds for the visual and textural contrast they provide to its dried cranberries.
“Pumpkin seeds have a mild nutty flavor and provide a nice flavor balance when mixed with tart cranberries, nuts and different seasonings,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Food Dive. “Also, the green color of the roasted pumpkin seeds provide a great color contrast to the bold-red color of dried cranberries, and the brown nuts and seasonings.”
The seeds also contribute to the protein content for the Tuscan Herb and Vanilla Chai varieties of the fruit and nut mixes, which contains 3 to 6 grams of plant protein per serving, respectively.
“Compared to almonds and other tree nuts, pumpkin seeds tend to be under-appreciated by consumers in the U.S. but are also just as nutritious,” said Ocean Spray's spokesperson.
Pumpkin seeds’ nutrition, taste and texture also won them a spot in Nature’s Path Grain Free line of hot cereals, which debuted in December. Nature's Path uses pumpkin seeds across its product portfolio, including its Organic Pumpkin Seed + Flax granola, which has been one of its long-time best sellers.
Arjan Stephens, general manager with the Canadian cereal and snack company, calls the seeds “nutritional powerhouses,” and cited their mono- and polyunsaturated fat content, including oleic and linoleic acids, which help lower “bad” cholesterol levels, while raising levels of good cholesterol.
“They have a delicious nutty taste that doesn’t overwhelm other flavors, but rather brings an additional depth to any product or flavor profile that they’re added to,” Stephens said in an email. “Lightly toasting them only further enhances this, so their versatility in product development is just one more reason to love this superstar ingredient.”
New forms take pumpkin seeds to the next level
That versatility and neutral taste opens up a range of flavor combinations for pumpkin seeds, taking them well beyond the traditional “pumpkin spice” realm.
Gr8nola, a California-based manufacturer of clean-label granolas, uses pumpkin and sunflower seeds in its Golden Spice variety. Founder and CEO Erica Liu Williams said the pumpkin seeds pair well with the warm, savory flavor combination of turmeric, black pepper, chili powder and cinnamon, for an overall taste profile that is more spiced than autumnal. “It doesn’t taste like fall at all,” said Liu Williams.
“When I think about pumpkin seeds, to me, it's no different than thinking about the inclusions of sunflower seeds or almonds or even like a nut. It's just like a nice extra texture and inclusion that adds ... like a dynamic bite,” Liu Williams said.
She also highlighted pumpkin seeds’ functional capabilities.
“They're an awesome inclusion because obviously there's less allergies to pumpkin seeds than there would be any kind of nut, and then [they are] a great source of plant-based protein and magnesium,” said Liu Williams.
Go Raw started with pumpkin seeds as it began building its product portfolio of healthy snacks in 2002. In particular, the company uses sprouted pumpkin seeds. The seeds are soaked to make them sprout, and then dehydrated instead of roasted. CEO Tim Prager said this process helps break down phytic acid in the pumpkin seeds — a natural, protective plant compound — which helps “unlock” their nutrients and, according to some medical studies, makes them easier to digest.
In terms of nutrition, Prager noted that Go Raw’s pumpkin seed snacks “deliver on protein” with about 9 grams per serving, making them a much healthier alternative compared to potato chips, which offer less than 3 grams.
“Even though we’re in a pandemic, consumers are looking to … take care of some needs, have items that maybe they shouldn't have, because they want to make themselves feel good,” he said. “They also know that they've got to eat better. And we're finding consumers are buying pumpkin seeds to satisfy those needs and eat better.”
In May, Go Raw plans to launch a coconut clusters snack featuring three sprouted seed varieties: pumpkin, sunflower and watermelon.
Woodworth with Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods sees other emerging applications for pumpkin seeds, especially ones that leverage their high protein content. This includes butters and powders, which can be used in baking applications, such as paleo-diet-friendly breads and crackers. Pumpkin seed powder can add a protein boost to shakes, smoothies and beverages. Pumpkin seed oil has application in dressings, snacks and nutraceuticals.
And pumpkin seed powders and granulated seeds could also have use in place of a filler in veggie burgers and plant-based meat alternatives — “anything that gets a binding agent,” Woodworth said. “You're not just using a filler that may not be connected. You're actually contributing an ingredient that in some cases is enhancing the highlights of the product.”