Soaking up Sunflower Seeds

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are members of the the Asteraceae family, along with the herbs arnica, burdock, boneset, calendula, chamomile, cronewort (mugwort), coltsfoot, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, feverfew, gravel root, grindelia, liferoot, milk thistle, tansy, yarrow, valerian, wormwood, and wild lettuce. The family also contains the foods artichokelettuceendive, and sun chokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes). And it contains the decorative flowers asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, bachelor’s buttons, daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, and zinnias.

Sunflowers are native to both North and South America, where indigenous people cultivated them for over 4,000 years. Year after year, they chose the largest seeds from the biggest heads, developing huge flowers with large seeds. Sunflower seeds were part of the regular diet of the Native Americans long before cornsquash, and beans, known as the three sisters, were cultivated in North America.

When European explorers introduced sunflower seeds to Europe in the 16th century, they received little notice as a food, but they were planted as ornamental flowers. Peter the Great (1672–1725) saw sunflowers blooming in Holland, and brought seeds back to Russia, where they were enthusiastically eaten. The Russian Orthodox Church forbade the eating of meat and oily plants during Lent. Because sunflower seeds were new food to Russians, there was no mention of them in Church doctrine as a prohibited food, so the Russians enjoyed them throughout Lent. By the 18th century, sunflowers were being grown and cultivated throughout Russia.

European farmers who came to North America in the 19th century preferred to plant cereal grains instead of the more labor-intensive sunflower seeds. But in the 1870s, Mennonite farmers from Russia settled in Canada, where they reintroduced sunflower seeds from Russia to North America. In the following decade, the Mennonites sold the seeds for their huge Russian sunflowers to U.S. seed companies.

In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War created a shortage of olive oil imported to Argentina, so the farmers there began producing sunflower oil. Sunflower oil became popular in cold climates because it stayed liquid at low temperatures. In 1966, a Russian sunflower that produced twice the amount of oil as other varieties began being planted in the U.S., where it became a major crop during the 1970s.

Sunflower seeds can:

  1. Fight free radicals. Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, your body’s primary fat-soluble antioxidant. Vitamin E travels throughout your body neutralizing free radicals that would otherwise damage fat-containing structures and molecules, such as cell membranes, brain cells, and cholesterol. Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of both manganese and copper, two trace minerals that are essential cofactors of a key antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within your mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). Secoisolariciresinol in sunflower seeds is a potent antioxidant and phytoestrogen that protects your body’s cells from dangerous free radicals. Sunflower seeds also contain many poly-phenol compounds such as chlorgenic acid, quinic acid, and caffeic acids. These are natural antioxidants that help remove harmful molecules from your body.
  2. Fight chronic inflammation. By protecting your fat-containing structures and molecules, vitamin E has significant anti-inflammatory effects that result in the reduction of symptoms of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis, conditions where free radicals and inflammation play a big role. Vitamin E also helps decrease the severity and frequency of hot flashes in women going through menopause, and helps reduce the development of diabetic complications. The magnesium in sunflower seeds helps reduce the severity of asthma and prevents migraine headaches. Sunflower seeds are especially rich in the poly-unsaturated essential fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), which accounts for more than 50% of their total fatty acids. Linoleic acid  is the major essential omega-6 fatty acid, and it provides another natural defense against such diseases as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, diabetic neuropathy and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Omega-6 fatty acids, including linoleic acid (LA), in sunflower seeds also regulate inflammatory mediation.
  3. Promote cardiovascular health. As one of the main antioxidants found in cholesterol particles, vitamin E helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol. Only after it has been oxidized is cholesterol able to adhere to blood vessel walls and initiate the process of atherosclerosis, which can lead to blocked arteries, heart attack, or stroke. Getting plenty of vitamin E can significantly reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. In fact, people who get a good amount of vitamin E are at a much lower risk of dying of a heart attack than people whose dietary intake of vitamin E is marginal or inadequate. Thiamine also supports proper heart function. The magnesium in sunflower seeds reduces high blood pressure and the risk of heart attack and stroke. Phosphorus in sunflower seeds helps maintain a steady heartbeat. Secoisolariciresinol in sunflower seeds protects you from heart disease and may prevent atherosclerosis, reduce high blood pressure, and increase cardiovascular health.
  4. Maintain your brain function. The thiamine in sunflower seeds is critical for brain cell and cognitive function. This is because thiamine is needed for the synthesis of acetyl choline, the important neurotransmitter essential for memory and whose lack has been found to be a significant contributing factor in age-related impairment in mental function (senility) and Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Promote healthy nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. Thiamine in sunflower seeds maintains your energy supplies and coordinates the activity of nerves and muscles. Magnesium in sunflower seeds counterbalances calcium, which helps regulate nerve and muscle tone. In many nerve cells, magnesium serves as a calcium channel blocker, preventing calcium from rushing into the nerve cell and activating the nerve. By blocking calcium‘s entry, magnesium keeps your nerves (and the blood vessels and muscles they stimulate) relaxed. If your diet provides you with too little magnesium, however, calcium can gain free entry, and the nerve cell can become over-activated, sending too many messages and causing excessive contraction. Insufficient magnesium can thus contribute to high blood pressure, muscle spasms (including spasms of the heart muscle or the spasms of the airways symptomatic of asthma), and migraine headaches, as well as muscle cramps, tension, soreness and fatigue. Sunflower seeds are rich in the amino acid, arginine. An enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS)—found in many of your body’s cell types—can use arginine to help produce nitric oxide (NO), which is a muscle relaxant. When NO causes the smooth muscles around your blood vessels to relax, the space inside your blood vessels can expand, allowing blood to flow more freely and creating a drop in blood pressure. In the same way, NO can improve erectile function in men. Omega-6 fatty acids, including linoleic acid (LA), in sunflower seeds is a precursor for the hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which cause constriction or dilation in vascular smooth muscle cells, and regulate calcium movement.
  6. Build strong bodiesMagnesium is also necessary for healthy bones and energy production. About two-thirds of the magnesium in your body is in your bones. Some helps give bones their physical structure, while the rest is found on the surface of the bone where it is stored for your body to draw upon as needed. Copper in sunflower seeds is necessary for the activity of lysyl oxidase, an enzyme involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, both of which provide strength and flexibility in blood vessels, bones, and joints. Phosphorus in sunflower seeds helps in the formation of bones and teeth, synthesis of protein, and muscle contraction. Sunflower seeds are also very good source of protein, with amino acids such as tryptophan that are essential for growth, especially in children. Just 100 grams of seeds provides about 21 grams of protein (37% of the daily recommended values). Secoisolariciresinol in sunflower seeds protects you from osteoporosis.
  7. Detoxify your body and prevent cancer. Vitamin E reduces the risk of colon cancer. Sunflower seeds are also a good source of selenium, a trace mineral whose intake shows a strong inverse correlation for cancer incidence. Selenium induces DNA repair and synthesis in damaged cells, inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells, and induces their apoptosis, the self-destruct sequence your body uses to eliminate worn out or abnormal cells. In addition, selenium is incorporated at the active site of many proteins, including glutathione peroxidase, one of your body’s most powerful antioxidant enzymes, which is particularly important for cancer protection. Your liver uses glutathione peroxidase to detoxify a wide range of potentially harmful molecules. When levels of glutathione peroxidase are too low, these toxic molecules are not disarmed and wreak havoc on any cells with which they come in contact, damaging their cellular DNA and promoting the development of cancer cells. Phytosterols are compounds found in plants that have a chemical structure very similar to cholesterol, and when present in your diet in sufficient amounts, can enhance your immune response and decrease your risk of certain cancers. Secoisolariciresinol in sunflower seeds is a phytoestrogen that protects your body’s cells from cancer.
  8. Give you energy while regulating blood sugar and fat.  Hemoglobin synthesis relies on the copper in sunflower seeds; without it, your red blood cells cannot properly use ironMagnesium in sunflower seeds helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. The vitamin B6  supports a wide range of activities in your nervous system and promotes proper breakdown of sugars and starches. Phosphorus helps you efficiently use carbohydrates and fats. Chlorgenic acid in sunflower seeds helps reduce blood sugar levels by reducing the breakdown of glycogen in your liver. Arginine in sunflower seeds can also form polyarginine peptides, which can block activity of an enzyme called tissue-nonspecific alkaline phosphatase, or TNAP. When TNAP activity is shut down, your fat cells (adipocytes) tend to create less fat.
  9. Reduce cholesterol. Phytosterols in sunflower seeds can reduce blood levels of cholesterol. The beneficial effects of phytosterols are so dramatic that they have been extracted from soycorn, and pine oil and added to processed foods, such as margarine, which are then touted as cholesterol-lowering “foods.” Sunflower seeds, like other nuts and seeds are a naturally rich source of phytosterols, along with cardio-protective fiberminerals, and healthy fats that are often missing from processed foods. Of the nuts and seeds typically consumed as snack foods, sunflower seeds and pistachios are richest in phytosterols (270-289 mg/100 g), followed by pumpkin seeds (265 mg/100 g). Sunflower seeds are also high in mono-unsaturated oleic acid that helps lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol in your blood. Secoisolariciresinol in sunflower seeds is a potent phytoestrogen that may prevent atherosclerosis and hyperlipidaemia (an abnormally high concentration of fats or lipids in the blood). It may also reduce blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol.

Nutrients in ¼ Cup Dried Sunflower Seeds

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin E

12.31 mg

62%

thiamine

0.52 mg

35%

manganese

0.68 mg

34%

copper

0.63 mg

32%

magnesium

113.75 mg

28%

fat

18.01 g

28%

selenium

18.55 µg

27%

vitamin B6

0.47 mg

24%

phosphorus

231 mg

23%

folate

79.45 µg

20%

niacin

2.92 mg

15%

protein

7.27 g

15%

fiber

3.01 g

12%

zinc

1.75 mg

12%

Calories

204.4

11%

iron

1.84 mg

10%

riboflavin

0.12 mg

7%

potassium

225.75 mg

6%

pantothenic acid

0.4 mg

4%

calcium

27.3 mg

3%

carbohydrates

7 g

2%

vitamin A

17.5 IU

0.4%

sodium

3.15 mg

0.1%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

You can buy sunflower seeds either with or without shells. They are generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the sunflower seeds are covered and that the store has a good product turnover to ensure maximum freshness.

When purchasing seed with shells, make sure that the shells are not broken or dirty. Additionally, they should be firm and not have a limp texture. When purchasing seeds without shells, avoid those that appear yellowish in color as they are probably rancid. In addition, if you are purchasing sunflower seeds from a bulk bin, smell them to ensure that they are still fresh.

Because sunflower seeds have a high fat content and are prone to rancidity, it is best to store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You can also store them in the freezer, because the cold temperature will not greatly affect their texture or flavor.

The quickest way to remove the shells from sunflower seeds is to grind them in a seed mill and then place them in cold water where the shells will float to the top and can be skimmed off with a slotted spoon. Alternatively, pulse them in the bowl of an electric mixer until the shells separate but not too many seeds are crushed. Then plunge the seeds into cold water as described above to separate them from the shells. Sunflower seeds without shells are plentiful in the stores so there is no need to go through the trouble unless you have harvested them from your garden.

Some serving ideas:

  • Add sunflower seeds to your favorite sandwich filling
  • Garnish mixed green salads with sunflower seeds
  • Sprinkle sunflower seeds onto hot and cold cereals
  • Blend sunflower seeds into a spread or dressing
  • Grind sunflower seeds with beans and vegetables for a delicious Black Bean Burger or loaf

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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