4 Tasty Little Seeds with Big Nutritional Benefits

Four types of seeds: hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame. Photo: Lisa Landers
Four types of seeds: hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame. Photo: Lisa Landers

I started tossing seeds on my salads because it reminded me of putting sprinkles on my ice cream. Although eating seeds doesn’t trigger the jolt of joy that chocolate sprinkles do, my grown-up taste buds are delighted by the savory flavors and subtle textures that seeds add to my bowl of greens. My delight factor increased after learning that some of these seeds are jam-packed with nutrients that are often lacking in our diets.

“People forget that seeds are an excellent source of plant-based protein, healthy fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytonutrients,” says Dr. Melina Jampolis, President of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists.

Contrary to popular belief, eating seeds in their raw form is not necessarily more nutritious than eating them roasted or toasted. "Cooking often helps to release or 'loosen' many food ingredients from their natural matrices such that they become more bioaccessible and bioavailable, explains Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, Director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University. "If you prefer toasted seeds to raw ones, then you will consume more of these healthy foods and ultimately derive more of these nutrients -- and that is a good thing.”

The good fats that contribute to the seeds’ rich and nutty flavors also jack up the calorie count, so be mindful of the suggested serving size. I chose to highlight the seeds that I think are tastiest, but these are certainly not the only ones with nutritional benefits. Besides using seeds to spruce up your salads, they make a great addition to soups, stir-fries and your morning cereal.

They even taste good on ice cream.

Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers
Pumpkin Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers

Also known as pepitas, these little powerhouses are loaded with all sorts of essential minerals such as manganese, phosphorus and potassium. They offer a substantial dose of magnesium: almost 50% of the daily intake recommended for adults. Jampolis says this is important because the majority of Americans don’t get the RDA of magnesium that they need. Maintaining an adequate amount of magnesium in our bodies helps to control blood sugar levels and blood pressure, and build bone density. Studies have shown that magnesium may even play a role in preventing migraines. Pumpkin seeds are also rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that our bodies use to make serotonin and melatonin: two hormones that promote relaxation and are key to getting a good night’s sleep.

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The World Health Organization recommends eating pumpkin seeds as a good source of zinc, a mineral that plays an important role in cell growth and can boost your immunity. Eating pumpkin seeds along with their shells may offer the highest amount of zinc, but you’ll still reap benefits if you prefer them without the hulls, as I do. My vote for the tastiest raw organic pumpkin seeds is a naturally hull-less, heirloom varietal grown in Austria and sold by CBs nuts.

Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers
Sunflower Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers

Also packed with minerals like magnesium and copper, sunflower seeds stand out for being rich in B-complex vitamins that support a healthy metabolism and help form red blood cells. Just one ounce of shelled sunflower seeds also contains two-thirds of the recommended daily dose of Vitamin E, a nutrient that supports circulation and acts as an antioxidant, protecting your cells against damaging free radicals, among other potential benefits.

I prefer my seeds shelled, roasted and lightly salted, like those sold by Trader Joe's.

Hemp Seeds

Hemp Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers
Hemp Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers

If I had known how nutty and delicious hemp seeds were, I would have started eating them ages ago. Hemp seeds have not been widely available until recently and nutritional research has been scant, likely because of a misleading association with marijuana, it’s psychotropic cousin (hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species, Cannabis sativa). What we do know about hemp seeds -- other than the fact that they won’t get you high -- is that they are rich in omega-3s and a type of beneficial omega-6 fatty acid called gamma linolenic acid that’s not found in many foods and may help reduce inflammation (as opposed to some types of omega-6 that can actually promote inflammation). Omega-3s support heart health and brain function, and new research suggests they may offer benefits for people with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Hemp seeds are also high in mineral, fiber and protein content, offering almost as much protein per serving as soybeans. Jampolis points out that “unlike many plant-based proteins, hemp seeds are complete protein – meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids.” If you want to try out a small amount, head to the bulk aisle at your local Whole Foods.

Sesame Seeds

Sesame Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers
Sesame Seeds. Photo: Lisa Landers

Tiny but mighty, sesame seeds are loaded with many of the same essential minerals as pepitas, but the real stand out is their copper content. Just two tablespoons provides about 80 percent of our daily copper needs; a mineral that supports the health of our bones, blood vessels, nerves, immune system and skin. Sesame seeds also contain sesamin and sesamolin; two phytochemicals that belong to a group of beneficial compounds called lignans, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Sesamin is currently being studied for its potential in the prevention and treatment of certain types of cancers and other diseases.

I find that toasting sesame seeds enhances their flavor and fragrance. The seeds come in an array of colors including ivory, yellow, red, brown and black. Mix up a multi-colored batch to create a rainbow sprinkle effect.

4 Seed Ice Cream. Photo: Lisa Landers
4 Seed Ice Cream. Photo: Lisa Landers

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is for general education purposes. Consult a medical practitioner for any health concerns.

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