The Great Pumpkin-Pie Conspiracy

What counts as a pumpkin? A scientific investigation.

A slice of pumpkin pie and a fork
Larry Crowe / AP

There’s a decent chance, if I may blow your mind for a moment, that your favorite pumpkin-pie recipe does not contain any actual pumpkin—at least, not the way you think. Scoop that autumnal goop out of a can, even one labeled “100 percent pure pumpkin,” and you just may be living a delicious lie.

The canned pumpkin you buy in the grocery store often contains little to no amount of the bright-orange, jack-o’-lantern kind of pumpkin. So what, exactly, is in there? And does it still count as a pumpkin?

Debating canned-pumpkin labels is becoming something of a perennial exercise. Snopes investigated the debacle last year, building its case on a Food and Wine article that got the whole internet’s harvest knickers in a collective twist. But this trivia tidbit has been bouncing around the web since at least 2012, when Heirloom Gardener revealed in a shocking exposé that the Libby’s brand of canned “pumpkin” contains a squash variety called the Dickinson pumpkin. In fact, Libby’s even acknowledges that they use the “Dickinson variety of pumpkin” on their website.

If you Google the Dickinson pumpkin, it will quickly become clear that no one would ever make it into a jack-o’-lantern. It looks like a pale, slightly misshapen butternut squash. Heirloom Gardener describes the Dickinson pumpkin as “uniform, smooth, tan”—no ridges, no familiar orange hue.

But wait! you cry, desperate to know whether, like the Food and Wine author, your “whole life is basically a lie.” “Dickinson pumpkin” has pumpkin in the name. So how is it not a real pumpkin?

It depends who you ask.

In this case, the most relevant definition might come from the FDA, which authorizes food sellers to label as pumpkin any article “prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash or mixtures of such squash and field pumpkin.”

“Field pumpkin,” as you might have guessed, is the canonical, jack-o’-lantern type, the embodiment of fall and Halloween and resident of hay-strewn patches across America. It’s actually a subspecies of Cucurbita pepo, along with acorn squash, zucchini, and decorative gourds.

What’s not in the same species as field pumpkin? You guessed it: the dastardly Dickinson.

Okay, but maybe the species the Dickinson does belong to—Cucurbita moschata, to be precise—could also be included under the umbrella term of pumpkin, right? This is where the line between pumpkins and squash starts to break down.

Heirloom Gardener claims that “there is only one species of ‘true’ pumpkin, the Cucurbita pepo.” Encyclopedia Britannica disagrees, saying that pumpkins are the “fruit of certain varieties of squash (namely, Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata)”—the field-pumpkin species and the Dickinson species. And if you think the Brits just don’t know what they’re talking about, know that Merriam-Webster is on their side.

The Missouri Botanical Garden takes an entirely different tack, saying that “pumpkin” as a category “really has no botanical meaning, as they are actually all squash.” Where, then, do we draw the line? The first jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of potatoes; does that mean we have to start calling potatoes pumpkins too?

Cindy Ott, who wrote Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, told me that, up until the 19th century, the words pumpkin and squash were used interchangeably. “It’s the same damn vegetable!” she said. The difference is all about symbolism. (Or, in some cases, about color: Pumpkin-growing competitions across the country will only consider specimens that are at least 80 percent orange.)

The whole reason canned pumpkin isn’t field pumpkin is that field pumpkin isn’t good to eat. Colonial Americans ate them only when they couldn’t afford anything else. It’s icky. So when the industrial revolution came along, according to Ott, “the pumpkin stayed behind on the farm.” Unlike squash, which were sold in markets and remained “part of people’s everyday life, just like how we see squash now,” no one tried to sell pumpkins in the city. They were just used as a cheap alternative to animal feed on small family farms. The pumpkin thus became a symbol of agrarian values, a bright-orange beacon of Americana; what we call a pumpkin comes down to what we decide fulfills that ideal.

As for the stuff that comes out of a can, a spokesperson from Libby’s confirmed to The Atlantic that “Libby’s canned pumpkin contains 100 percent Dickinson pumpkins”—you know, the kind that isn’t even the same species as the big round orange ones. You can even watch a video of Libby’s harvesting its pale, oblong fruit. (Yes, pumpkins are fruit; don’t get me started.)

And to settle any worries that your cans are full of butternut squash, Snopes confirmed that most canned pumpkin is not majority-butternut, despite what much of the internet suggested in its autumnal freak-out. So we don’t have to start calling that a pumpkin.

But beyond that, we’ve ended up right back where we started. We may lack any botanical, scientific, or regulatory unanimity, but the popular consensus remains that the field pumpkin is the One True Pumpkin. I’m not about to disabuse myself of this notion just because a bunch of botanists can’t make up their minds.

Adrienne LaFrance contributed reporting to this article.