Seeds are the potential for new life that are grown as part of a plant and in some way reach the earth to carry on their species. The longlived plants, such as trees, may generate seeds of some kind at various intervals. The seeds discussed here are from annual plants and are contained within a hard shell that protects this potential for the next generation of life. These seeds are slightly different from the grains, which have softer shells and a different structural makeup, though they are very similar in many ways. Beans and peas are actually seeds as well, though contained in pods. Most seeds can be stored in their whole form. In fact, some seeds discovered from centuries past were still able to germinate.

Seeds were originally used in their ground form as seasonings or herbal flavorings for foods. Celery, cumin, mustard, cardamom, and coriander seeds, as well as many others, are still used in this way. But seeds are also very concentrated food. They are the initial source of the nutrition for the new plant.

The three main seeds discussed here?pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower?are high-protein foods, with more protein than the grains. Pumpkin seeds, for example, are more than 30 percent protein. High in vitamin E, these seeds are also a good source of fat, containing more than half by weight. Luckily, most (more than 80 percent) of that is polyunsaturated fats, our essential fatty acids, and oil-soluble vitamins A, D, and E. So seeds can be rather high in calories, which is good for those few who are attempting to gain weight. There are some B vitamins in seeds, varying depending on the seed. They are rich in minerals; iron and zinc are plentiful. The amount of magnesium is good, especially in pumpkin seeds. Most seeds are a great source of copper. Calcium and potassium levels are also fairly good, yet there is very little sodium. Phosphorus levels are high, especially compared to calcium, thus an excess of seed intake can throw off this important balance. Iodine is usually present in most seeds as well.

Seeds can be eaten raw after shelling and bought fresh either in shells or unshelled. They are a good protein addition to salads, can be cooked into grain or vegetable dishes, or can be blended to make a low-sodium protein sprinkle for food dishes. Unhulled seeds have a better shelf life than the hulled seeds, which should be kept refrigerated. Unhulled seeds can be stored in a cool, dry place. All seeds can be sprouted to make a highly nutritious seed-vegetable (green) combination. Sunflower and alfalfa are common and can be used in salads or sandwiches.

Most commonly, seeds are used to make oils. Sunflower, safflower, and sesame are very good ones among the seed oils. These can be used in cooking (sunflower is the most stable for storage and cooking) or to make margarines, but they are best used fresh on foods such as salads and cooked grains or vegetables. Usually, cold-processed oils (not heat-refined) give good nourishment, and using them uncooked is best.


Pumpkin Sunflower

Pumpkin Seeds.
These are best known for their concentration of zinc and their use in the treatment and prevention of male prostate problems. Pumpkin seeds have also been used in the treatment of intestinal worms. They are a good source of protein and contain a good balance of the amino acids, though tryptophan, methionine, and cysteine are a little lower in concentration than the others. Their fat content, mostly unsaturated, is over 50 percent of the seeds.

Pumpkin seeds are also very high in iron as well as calcium and phosphorus, with some magnesium and copper; they also contain vitamin E and essential fatty acids. There is a mix of B vitamins, with niacin being the richest. Pumpkin seeds are usually eaten raw, roasted, or blended into a seed meal and used on other foods. Like pumpkin seeds, most squash seeds are found within the hard vegetable and can be toasted and eaten as well. They have similar nutrient values.

Sesame Seeds.
These seeds are probably the most commonly used worldwide, especially in the Middle East, where the sesame foods tahini (sesame mash) and halvah (a sesame candy) originated. These foods and other sesame products are used now in many countries. In the United States, sesame seeds are often used in breads or on bread crusts; as tahini or sesame butter to spread on bread or crackers or used in sauces; as halvah candy; and as a roasted, blended sesame salt called gomasio, which originated in Japan. Sesame seeds can be eaten raw, dried, or roasted or cooked with all kinds of foods. They are also great to add to other foods, such as grains and legumes, because they provide additional amino acids that may be low in those foods. Sesame can also be used with many seasonings, with other nuts or seeds, such as almonds or sunflower seeds, or blended with seasoning seeds such as caraway, poppy, dill, or anise, and used over various food dishes. Black sesame seeds, also very nourishing, can also be used in these seasonings. (Note: Sesame seeds, as do all seeds, and really all foods for that matter, need to be chewed well to help them be digested and assimilated; otherwise, many of these tiny seeds may pass through the intestinal tract unused.)

Sesame seeds come from little seed pods of one of the oldest of cultivated plants. In the Middle East, they are still called the ?seed of immortality.? The seeds are rich in oil, over 55 percent. Sesame oil is a very useful and common oil, especially in Oriental culture, where toasted and even hot-spiced sesame oil is used in cooking. Sesame seeds are also about 20 percent protein and contain some vitamins A and E and most of the B vitamins except B12 and folic acid. Minerals, however, are very abundant in sesame, as in most seeds. Zinc is high, as are calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Sesame seeds are an excellent source of calcium for those avoiding cow?s milk. However, the phosphorus content is much higher, as is true of most seeds, thus making it not quite as good for bone support. Iron is fairly high and sodium is fairly low, unless, of course, they are salted. Sesame seeds may also have a mild antioxidant effect, possibly because of their vitamin E content or some other factors.

Sunflower Seeds.
Sunflowers are native to South and North America. These tall, strong flowers that open bright yellow to their sun, are filled tightly with hundreds of seeds to carry on life. Sunflower seeds have been used throughout history to enhance energy, and as a medicine as well. The Indians of the Americas and other herbalists have used sunflower seeds as a diuretic, for constipation, chest pain, or ulcers, to treat worms, and to improve eyesight. More recently, John Douglas, M.D., was quoted in
Food and Nutrition (Rodale Press, 1983) as praising the medicinal powers of sunflower seeds. He recommends them to many patients with high blood pressure or cardiovascular problems and occasionally to help reduce allergic reactions, all with good success. He also suggests them as part of a stop-smoking program, having people in the program munch on raw, unshelled, unsalted sunflower seeds, which, in addition to their medicinal properties, gives them something to do with their hands and mouth.

Again, raw sunflower seeds are probably the best, higher in nutrition than roasted and definitely better than salted seeds. For people with blood pressure problems, sunflower seeds (unsalted!) are very high in potassium and low in sodium, a balance sorely needed by most of us these Day s with so many salty foods available. One cup of sunflower seeds contains more than 1,300 mg. of potassium and only 4 mg. of sodium. This is likely very helpful as a diuretic or for people who already take diuretics, to help replace some potassium. The high amount of oil in sunflower seeds as polyunsaturated fats, essential linoleic acid, and vitamin E is also helpful in reducing cholesterol levels and improving or preventing cardiovascular disease.

However, sunflower seeds are caloric; one half cup of hulled seeds is approximately 400 calories. If we are watching our figures, then we?ll have to go a little easy on sunflower seeds, but from all other aspects of nutrition, they are a good food. For those who need to gain weight or substitute more vegetable oils for saturated fats, sunflower seeds can be very good. They are about 25 percent protein, have a good fiber content, the best of the seeds, and are richer in the B vitamins also, particularly in thiamine, pyridoxine, niacin, and pantothenic acid. With their high potassium and low sodium and with zinc, iron, and calcium all at good levels, sunflower seeds are a very mineral-rich food. The vitamin D that gets stored in these sun-filled seeds helps the utilization of calcium. Copper, manganese, and phosphorus levels are also relatively high; they are lower in magnesium than in calcium, which is different from other seeds.

Sunflower seed oil is a very good one. It is often used in margarines or cooking oils. It is rich in polyunsaturates and linoleic oil and has a fairly low rancidity level compared to other oils. This may be because of its vitamin E content. Cold-pressed sunflower oil is the best. It should also be refrigerated once opened to avoid spoilage. Cold storage of most nuts and seeds is generally suggested.

Sunflower seeds have many other uses besides as an oil or nutritious snack food. They can be sprinkled on salads, are used in baking breads and cookies, and can be baked in vegetable casseroles to add protein, flavor, and crunch. A ground or blended sunflower-sesame sprinkle with a bit of salt or other seasonings can be a nutrient-rich, low-sodium seasoning. Almond-sunflower blend is also good, and a spicy high-mineral protein blend includes ground sunflower and sesame seeds (either white or black), nori seaweed flakes, and cayenne pepper. If sunflower seeds are soaked overnight, it makes them more digestible and alkaline-forming. When added to green salads, they supply a tasty crunch, along with some protein and fatty acids. This is also true for nuts. A great combination is soaked almonds, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.

Elson M. Haas MD Written by Elson M. Haas MD

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