No “Pumpkin” in my Pumpkin Pie? Understanding the “Common or Usual” Name for a Food

Everyone knows what a pumpkin is: a roundish gourd with grooves going up and down, and, of course, it’s orange. One then uses this produce to make a jack-o’-lantern or, more importantly, a pumpkin pie!

Definitely needed in the garden!

The pumpkin pie purests insist that you must use fresh pumpkins to make a pie. These pumpkins have the botanical name of Cucurbita pepo and a favorite variety for pie making is Early Sweet Sugar Pie. While I greatly love pumpkin pie, only once did I make a pie using a fresh pumpkin. It was a lot of work and tasted “ok, not amazing.”

So I stick with canned pumpkin for my pies. However this canned product is not necessarily Cucurbita pepo, but may be sweet squash (Cucurbita maxima) or a mixture of them both. How can canned “pumpkin” contain something other than “pumpkin?”


Furthermore how can FDA be ok with this, with sweet squash being called pumpkin! Why?!

Looks like a pumpkin to me!

Admittedly, pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is a type of squash and sweet squash (Cucurbita maxima) is also known as a pumpkin. This is because there is more than one “common or usual name” for these things. The common or usual name for any food is admittedly not usually very precise, which is why those who need precision use the botanical name. However, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires a food and its ingredients to be called by their common or usual name. Section 403(i).

So what is a “common or usual” name: it “may be a coined term, [that] shall accurately identify or describe, in as simple and direct terms as possible, the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties or ingredients. The name shall be uniform among all identical or similar products and may not be confusingly similar to the name of any other food that is not reasonably encompassed within the same name. Each class or subclass of food shall be given its own common or usual name that states, in clear terms, what it is in a way that distinguishes it from different foods.” 21 C.F.R. 102.5(a).

In other words, the common or usual name is that name that an average consumer typically uses to refer to a food and, when read, they know what the heck you are talking about. However, several things can have more than one name, especially when you are talking about plants. While calling something by its “common or usual name” can lump together things with different botanical names like Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima, it also adds precision by separating pumpkins, acorn squash, zucchini, and pattypan squash, which are all Cucurbita pepo, but used rather differently in the kitchen.

So this Thanksgiving know that when you are enjoying your pumpkin pie, you may not be eating “pumpkin.”

Postscript: If you don’t have a good pumpkin pie recipe, don’t worry, FDA has one for you.


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