With October upon us, our national obsession with all things pumpkin is in full swing. All by itself, everyone’s favorite gourd is a nutritionist’s dream, packed with tons of nutrients. So it might seem like pulling every pumpkin cereal, ravioli, and baking mix off grocery shelves could be a good move for our health. But do we really reap the health benefits of pumpkin from these products as much as we think? It’s possible, but doing so may require paying a bit of extra attention.

pumpkin pie

Since it’s a vegetable, plain pumpkin certainly has plenty of nutrition to offer. One cup of pumpkin puree contains over 700 percent of your daily value of vitamin A, the nutrient associated with improved vision and a healthy immune system. (Incidentally, most yellow, orange, or red veggies tend to pack plenty of this vitamin, since it’s found in their pigmentation.) The same amount of puree boasts seven grams of fiber — nearly 30 percent of women’s daily target of 25 grams. In addition to helping along your digestive health, fiber keeps you fuller longer and can lower cholesterol. Pumpkin is also a source of potassium, iron, vitamin K, and vitamin C — all essential for good health.

Perhaps the best news is that all these nutrients come in a super low-calorie package. One cup of pumpkin has only about 83 calories. And while we’re pretty sure you’re not zoning in front of the TV spooning an entire cup of pumpkin into your mouth, it’s a helpful point of reference for home cooking and baking.

The amount of nutrition in a cup of pumpkin takes on new meaning, however, when you begin to consider how much pumpkin the average commercially prepared pumpkin-flavored food product contains… or how little.

Anyone remember the infamous “Pumpkin-Gate” of 2015, for example? A controversy erupted when food blogger Vani Hari (AKA “the Food Babe”) decried the fact that Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte contained no actual pumpkin. (At the time, the coffee giant was relying merely on “traditional fall spice flavors” to achieve PSL’s pumpkin-like taste.) Starbucks has since added pumpkin to the sauce used to make the drink — but exactly how much remains a mystery.

On the subject of fake pumpkin foods, we can’t point the finger just at coffee drinks. Numerous other pumpkin-flavored products may or may not really have pumpkin in them — or if they do, the amount could be negligible enough to not provide any measurable health benefits. Diligent label reading (or internet sleuthing) may be the most reliable means of discovering whether your favorite pumpkin product offers any seasonal nutrition along with its seasonal flavor.

While you have your pumpkin-flavored food turned on its side to search its ingredient list, stay there awhile to check for a few other potential red flags. Since pumpkin all by its lonesome tastes — let’s be honest — like bland baby food, it usually requires a bit of tinkering to turn it into the flavor we know and love. (We get it. Again, who wants to eat the stuff straight from the can?) For your health, though, it’s best to keep some added ingredients to a minimum. Here are some nutrition pitfalls to check labels for:

1. Sugar: You can’t have sweet pumpkin treats like cookies, candies, or ice cream without sugar, but how much sugar do these products really need? (And how much do you?) Scanning labels for grams of sugar per serving can help you determine if a food is worth the indulgence. The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. Gradually, as a new update to labeling laws takes effect, more labels will list “added sugars” as their own category, making this even easier to check.

2. Sodium: Pumpkin doesn’t always have to be sweet. Plenty of savory recipes hit the spot with this fall favorite. Just be wary of excess sodium in foods like pumpkin soups, pumpkin trail mix, or even baked goods. Numerous public health authorities set a daily goal of 2,300 mg of sodium.

3. Artificial Colors: Up until its 2015 exposé, the PSL may not have had any pumpkin, but it did contain something a lot less desirable: artificial coloring. Thankfully, this has been removed from the drink, but many other food companies continue to doctor their products with artificial colors like red and yellow dyes, which may be carcinogenic. Look for the words “red” or “yellow” followed by a number on ingredient lists.

4. Fat: Since the vitamin A in pumpkin is fat-soluble (meaning the body can only absorb it when fat is present), you do actually want some fat mixed in with your orange goodies. It’s all a matter of how much, and what kind. The main fat to keep an eye on is the saturated variety. Though research continues to explore the ideal amount of saturated fat in our daily diet, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping your consumption to less than 10 percent of daily calories (about 22 grams a day in a 2,000 calorie diet).

As far as nutrition goes, eating pumpkin in its whole-food form is best, but when a pumpkin-flavored food product is calling your name, keep these pointers in mind.

What’s your favorite pumpkin-flavored food? Tweet us at @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)