The World's Healthiest Foods
Squash, winter

We are just beginning to discover the wealth of nourishment supplied by the mildly sweet flavored and finely textured winter squash that was once such an important part of the diet of the Native Americans that they buried it along with the dead to provide them nourishment on their final journey. Winter squash is available from August through March, however, they are at their best from October to November when they are in season.

Winter squash, members of the Cucurbitaceae family and relatives of both the melon and the cucumber, come in many different varieties. While each type varies in shape, color, size and flavor, but they all have hard protective skins that are difficult to pierce that gives them a long storage life of up to six months and a hollow inner seed containing cavity.


Health Benefits

Anti-Cancer Phytonutrients

Although not as potent as root vegetables like burdock, garlic or onion, winter squash have been found to have anti-cancer type effects. Phytonutrient research on squash is still limited, but some lab studies have shown vegetable juices obtained from squash to be equal to juices made from leeks, pumpkin, and radish in their ability to prevent cell mutations (cancer-like changes).

Promote Prostate Health

In research studies, extracts from squash have also been found to help reduce symptoms of a condition occurring in men called benign prostatic hypertrophy, or BPH. In this condition, the prostate gland becomes problematically enlarged, which can cause difficulty with urinary and sexual function. Particularly in combination with other phytonutrient-containing foods, squash may be helpful in reducing BPH symptoms.

Lower Your Risk of Developing Lung Cancer

Consuming foods rich in beta-cryptoxanthin, an orange-red carotenoid found in highest amounts in corn, pumpkin, papaya, red bell peppers, tangerines, oranges and peaches, may significantly lower one’s risk of developing lung cancer. A study published in the September 2003 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention reviewed dietary and lifestyle data collected from 63,257 adults in Shanghai, China, who were followed for 8 years, during which time 482 cases of lung cancer were diagnosed. Those eating the most crytpoxanthin-rich foods showed a 27% reduction in lung cancer risk. When current smokers were evaluated, those who were also in the group consuming the most cryptoxanthin-rich foods were found to have a 37% lower risk of lung cancer compared to smokers who ate the least of these health-protective foods. (December 3, 2003)

Vitamin A Provides Protection against Emphysema

If you or someone you love is a smoker, or if you are frequently exposed to secondhand smoke, then making vitamin A-rich foods, such as winter squash, part of your healthy way of eating may save your life, suggests research conducted at Kansas State University.

While studying the relationship between vitamin A, lung inflammation, and emphysema, Richard Baybutt, associate professor of nutrition at Kansas State, made a surprising discovery: a common carcinogen in cigarette smoke, benzo(a)pyrene, induces vitamin A deficiency.

Baybutt's earlier research had shown that rats fed a vitamin A-deficient diet developed emphysema. His latest animal studies indicate that not only does the benzo(a)pyrene in cigarette smoke cause vitamin A deficiency, but that a diet rich in vitamin A can help counter this effect, thus greatly reducing emphysema.

In his initial research, Baybutt took just weaned male rats and divided them into two groups, one of which was exposed to cigarette smoke, and the other to air. In the rats exposed to cigarette smoke, levels of vitamin A dropped significantly in direct correlation with their development of emphysema. In the second study, both groups of rats were exposed to cigarette smoke, but one group was given a diet rich in vitamin A. Among those rats receiving the vitamin A-rich foods, emphysema was effectively reduced.

Baybutt believes vitamin A's protective effects may help explain why some smokers do not develop emphysema. "There are a lot of people who live to be 90 years old and are smokers," he said. "Why? Probably because of their diet…The implications are that those who start smoking at an early age are more likely to become vitamin A deficient and develop complications associated with cancer and emphysema. And if they have a poor diet, forget it." If you or someone you love smokes, or if your work necessitates exposure to second hand smoke, protect yourself by making sure that at least one of the World's Healthiest Foods that are rich in vitamin A, such as winter squash, is a daily part of your healthy way of eating. (October, 21, 2004)

A Variety of Health-Promoting Nutrients

Winter squash, unlike its summer equivalent, can be harvested very late into the fall, has a longer storage potential, and still provides an outstanding variety of conventional nutrients. Winter squash emerged from our food ranking system as an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), a very good source of vitamin C, thiamin-vitamin B1, folate, pantothenic acid-vitamin B5, potassium and dietary fiber. In addition, winter squash emerged as a a good source of vitamin B6 and niacin-vitamin B3. How does this amazing array of nutrients support our health?

One of the most abundant nutrients in winter squash, beta-carotene, has been shown to have very powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Beta-carotene is able to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the body. Since oxidized cholesterol is the type that builds up in blood vessel walls and contributes to the risk of heart attack and stroke, getting extra beta-carotene in the diet may help to prevent the progression of atherosclerosis.

It may also protect against diabetic heart disease and may be useful for preventing other complications caused by free-radicals often seen in long-term diabetes. Additionally, intake of foods such as winter squash that are rich in carotenoids may be beneficial to blood sugar regulation. Research has suggested that physiological levels, as well as dietary intake, of carotenoids may be inversely associated with insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels.

Studies have also shown that a good intake of beta-carotene can help to reduce the risk of colon cancer, possibly by protecting colon cells from the damaging effects of cancer-causing chemicals.

Finally, beta-carotene's anti-inflammatory effects may help to reduce the severity of conditions like asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis, which all involve inflammation.

Other nutrients found in winter squash are also useful for a number of different conditions. The potassium in winter squash may help to lower blood pressure, and the vitamin C may be able to reduce the severity of conditions like asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis and also to prevent the progression of conditions like atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease. Fiber to Fight Heart Disease and Colon Cancer

In addition to its ability to lower high cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease, the fiber found in winter squash is also able to prevent cancer-causing chemicals from attacking colon cells. This is one of the reasons why diets high in fiber-rich foods have been associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer. The fiber found in vegetables has also been shown to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms of diarrhea and constipation in patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

Folate to Help Prevent Birth Defects, Heart Attack and Colon Cancer

The folate found in winter squash may help to prevent certain birth defects if taken by women before and during pregnancy. Folate is also needed by the body to break down a dangerous metabolic byproduct called homocysteine, that can directly damage blood vessel walls. Since high levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, getting plenty of folate in the diet is a good idea.

Folate has also been shown to help protect colon cells from the effects of cancer-causing chemicals. In fact, diets high in folate-rich foods are associated with a significantly reduced risk of colon cancer, especially in people who have a history of alcohol use.


Winter squash, members of the Cucurbitaceae family and relatives of both the melon and the cucumber, come in many different varieties. While each type varies in shape, color, size and flavor, they all share some common characteristics. Their shells are hard and difficult to pierce, enabling them to have long storage periods between one and six months. Their flesh is mildly sweet in flavor and finely grained in texture. Additionally, all have seed-containing hollow inner cavities.

Varieties of winter squash include:

  • Butternut squash: Shaped like a large pear, this squash has cream-colored skin, deep orange-colored flesh and a sweet flavor.
  • Acorn squash: With harvest green skin speckled with orange patches and pale yellow-orange flesh, this squash has a unique flavor that is a combination of sweet, nutty and peppery.
  • Hubbard squash: A larger-sized squash that can be dark green, grey-blue or orange-red in color, the Hubbard's flavor is less sweet than many other varieties.
  • Turban squash: Green in color and either speckled or striped, this winter squash has an orange-yellow flesh whose taste is reminiscent of hazelnuts.


Modern day squash developed from the wild squash that originated in an area between Guatemala and Mexico. While squash has been consumed for over 10,000 years, they were first cultivated specifically for their seeds since earlier squash did not contain much flesh, and what they did contain was very bitter and unpalatable. As time progressed, squash cultivation spread throughout the Americas, and varieties with a greater quantity of sweeter-tasting flesh were developed. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe from the New World, and like other native American foods, their cultivation was introduced throughout the world by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Today, the largest commercial producers of squash include China, Japan, Romania, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, and Argentina.

How to Select and Store

Winter squash is easily prone to decay, so it is important to carefully inspect it before purchase. Choose ones that are firm, heavy for their size and have dull, not glossy, rinds. The rind should be hard as soft rinds may indicate that the squash is watery and lacking in flavor. Avoid those with any signs of decay, which manifest as areas that are water-soaked areas or moldy.

Winter squash has a much longer storage life than summer squash. Depending upon the variety, it can be kept for between one week to six months. It should be kept away from direct exposure to light and should not be subject to extreme heat or extreme cold. The ideal temperature for storing winter squash is between 50 and 60°F. Once it is cut, cover the pieces of winter squash in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for one or two days. The best way to freeze winter squash is to first cut it into pieces of suitable size for individual recipes.

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

Tips for Preparimg Winter Squash:

After washing winter squash, cut it in half and remove the seeds and fibrous material in the cavity. Depending upon the recipe preparation, you can either use it peeled or unpeeled.

Alternatively, pierce the squash near the stem with a knife to allow any steam to escape, then bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife can be easily inserted near the stem. As you would before carving a pumpkin, cut out a small circle around the stem, remove this piece from the squash, and scoop out the seeds and fibrous material in the cavity.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Top puréed cooked winter squash with cinnamon and maple syrup.

Steam cubes of winter squash and then dress with olive oil, tamari, ginger and pumpkin seeds.

Top "strings" of spaghetti squash with pasta sauce.

Add cubes of winter squash to your favorite vegetable soup recipe.


Winter squash is not a commonly allergenic food, is not included in the list of 20 foods that most frequently contain pesticide residues, and is also not known to contain goitrogens, oxalates, or purines.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.


Squash, Winter, All Varieties
1.00 cup
79.95 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
vitamin A 7291.85 IU 182.3 46.3 excellent
dietary fiber 5.74 g 28.7 7.3 very good
vitamin C 19.68 mg 26.2 6.7 very good
potassium 895.85 mg 25.6 6.5 very good
vitamin B1 (thiamin) 0.17 mg 15.5 3.9 very good
vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) 0.72 mg 14.4 3.7 very good
folate 57.40 mcg 14.3 3.6 very good
manganese 0.43 mg 12.3 3.1 good
vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) 0.15 mg 11.5 2.9 good
vitamin B3 (niacin) 1.44 mg 10.3 2.6 good
tryptophan 0.03 g 9.4 2.4 good
omega 3 fatty acids 0.34 g 7.7 2.0 good
copper 0.19 mg 7.6 1.9 good
phosphorus 41.00 mg 5.9 1.5 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%


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This page was updated on: 2004-10-21 21:01:14
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation