Sunflower Seeds 101 – The Basics
About Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are the seeds of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus). There are several types of sunflower plants, with the linoleic variety being the most common. The variety most often sold as sunflower seeds for eating may also be called confectionery sunflower seeds. The average sunflower plant produces 1,000 to 2,000 seeds.
Sunflower seeds are commonly eaten as a snack, but can also be used as a garnish or an ingredient in assorted recipes. They are sometimes added to breads or other baked goods. The seeds may also be sprouted and eaten in salads. Sunflower seed butter is also available in many markets along with peanut butter. Sunflower seeds may also be used as a food for pets and wild birds. They are sometimes used as a substitute for those with nut allergies. The seeds are sold as in-shell seeds or dehulled kernels. They may be sold raw or roasted, salted or with another flavoring added. The seeds themselves have a mild, nutty flavor with a firm yet tender texture. Roasting enhances the flavor.
Sunflowers grow in temperate areas around the world. Because of their relatively deep root system, sunflowers are a hardy crop that is drought resistant and does well in arid areas. People have enjoyed sunflower seeds for thousands of years, with the earliest reference to them being eaten by Native Americans, dating back to 1,000 BC. They were first grown commercially in Mexico and the southern United States. In the 16th century, sunflower seeds were transported to Europe where they have since become a major crop. Today, the top sunflower growing countries are Ukraine, Russia, Argentina, China, and Romania. Sunflowers are grown in the United States (mostly in North and South Dakota), but ranks tenth in production globally. In 2017, 105.5 billion pounds of sunflower seeds were produced within 72 different countries. Almost half of those came from Ukraine and Russia.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of Vitamin E, and selenium, and a good source of copper. They also contain a lot of protein, fiber, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, Vitamin B1, phosphorus, manganese, Vitamin B6, magnesium, folate, and niacin.
Antioxidant Protection. Sunflower seeds are especially high in Vitamin E and selenium. These important nutrients function as antioxidants that help protect the body from harmful free radicals that play a role in the development of some chronic diseases. The seeds are also a good source of phenolic acids and flavonoids, which are beneficial plant compounds that also function as antioxidants. When sunflower seeds are sprouted, these compounds increase, which makes them even more healthful to eat. Sprouting also reduces some factors that can hinder mineral absorption. Sprouted sunflower seeds may be purchased in some stores, but are very easy to sprout at home.
Anti-Inflammatory Benefits. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for many serious diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. C-reactive protein is a blood marker that is used to determine a person’s risk of such conditions. In a study involving 6,000 adults reported in the 2006 American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that those who ate sunflower and other seeds at least five times a week had 32% lower levels of C-reactive protein when compared to people who ate no seeds. It is known that sunflower seeds are abundant in Vitamin E, and that vitamin is known to help lower C-reactive protein levels. Also, the flavonoids and other compounds found in sunflower seeds can also help to reduce inflammation. So, eating a small handful of sunflower seeds on most days may be able to help reduce chronic inflammation.
Reduced Blood Pressure and Risk of Heart Disease. Chronic hypertension can lead to heart disease, causing a heart attack or stroke. Sunflower seeds contain a compound that blocks an enzyme that causes blood vessels to constrict. This may help blood vessels to relax, thus lowering blood pressure. They also contain magnesium which is also known to help reduce blood pressure levels.
Sunflower seeds are also rich in linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid that the body uses to make a hormone-like compound that relaxes blood vessels, lowering blood pressure. Linoleic acid is also known to help lower blood cholesterol.
In a 3-week study reported in the December 2012 issue of the journal ISRN Nutrition, women with Type 2 diabetes who ate 1 ounce (30 grams) of sunflower seeds or almonds a day (along with a healthy diet) had a 5% drop in systolic blood pressure. The subjects also experienced a 9% drop in LDL cholesterol and a 12% drop in triglycerides. This would help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
In the October 2014 issue of the journal Circulation, researchers reviewed 13 studies and found that those with the highest linoleic acid intake had a 15% lower risk of heart disease episodes, such as a heart attack. Individuals also experienced a 21% lower risk of dying of heart disease, when compared to those with the lowest intake of linoleic acid. Since sunflower seeds are high in this type of polyunsaturated fat, ingesting modest amounts of them on a regular basis may help to prevent complications leading to heart disease.
Sunflower seeds also contain no cholesterol and are very low in saturated fats, making them a healthful food for the cardiovascular system.
Diabetes. Studies suggest that those who eat 1 ounce of sunflower seeds a day, as part of a healthy diet, may reduce fasting blood sugar by about 10% within six months, when compared with those who ate a healthy diet without the seeds. Researchers speculate the blood-sugar-lowering effect of sunflower seeds may be partially due to their compound chlorogenic acid. The researchers concluded that more research in this area is needed, but the results look promising.
Immune System Booster. Sunflower seeds are high in selenium, magnesium, zinc, and iron which helps to strengthen the blood and immune system, helping us to fight off viruses.
Help for Expectant Mothers. For women who are planning to have children or are already pregnant, sunflower seeds have a lot to offer. Their high levels of zinc, folate, and Vitamin E make them valuable foods to include in the diet. According to the American Pregnancy Association, Vitamin E is essential for prenatal health because it helps the fetus develop and use red blood cells and muscles. It also supports and nourishes the skin of both the mother and her growing baby. Folate supports the placenta and helps prevent spina bifida, a serious neural tube defect that can happen when the expectant mother’s diet is deficient in this vital nutrient. Also, zinc is important for producing insulin and enzymes.
How to Select Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are sold in a variety of ways, both shelled and unshelled. They may be raw or roasted, processed with or without salt, or flavored in a variety of other ways. Whichever flavor you choose will depend on your personal preferences and intended use for the seeds.
When purchasing plain (unflavored) sunflower seeds in the shells, look for ones with shells that are firm and intact. When purchasing shelled (plain, raw) seeds be sure to look for the “Best by” or “Expiration” date and select a package with the date farthest into the future. This will ensure you get the freshest seeds available. Shelled raw sunflower seeds can go rancid in time because their oils will spoil when exposed to air. Be sure their packaging is sealed with as much air as possible having been removed from the container.
How to Store Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds in their original, unopened container can be kept at room temperature up to or shortly after their “Best by” date stamped on the package. The date stamped on the packaging is only an estimate of their shelf life. Environmental conditions, like light and heat can affect how long seeds will last, especially when kept at room temperature. Once opened, they should be placed in the refrigerator. For longest life, store them in the freezer, whether the package has been opened or not.
If the seeds are still in their shells, they should keep longer than shelled seeds. This is because the shells help to protect the seeds from oxygen, which is what causes their oils to go rancid. Light, heat, and moisture may also cause the seeds to spoil.
Roasting reduces the shelf-life of sunflower seeds by about half. So, if you prefer to buy roasted sunflower seeds (or even roast them yourself), be sure to store them in the refrigerator or freezer to extend their lifespan.
Stale vs Expired Sunflower Seeds
If your seeds are not rancid, but have become stale, they can still be eaten. They can be refreshed by briefly toasting them on the stove or in the oven.
Like all other seeds, sunflower seeds won’t last forever. When stored long enough, the fats in them will spoil or go rancid. At that point they should be discarded. You can tell that they are rancid when they taste bitter or sour, reminding you of rancid olive oil. The seeds may develop an “off” aroma, reminding you of putty, or nail polish remover. However, the change in aroma may not always be so obvious. If you are not quite sure that your seeds are old, but sense that something isn’t quite right with them, it’s time to toss them out. When in doubt, throw them out!
Sunflower seeds are highly nutritious, but they are also high in calories because of their fat content. A one-fourth cup serving of dry roasted salt-free sunflower seeds has 207 calories. Because they are delicious and easy to ingest, it’s very easy to eat more than this small amount at one time. But, it is important to limit your serving size to no more than one-fourth cup to help control calorie and fat intake. This is especially important for those who are on a reduced fat diet or those monitoring their calorie intake to control weight. To help prevent overeating sunflower seeds, many people buy them still in their shell. Having to shell them as you enjoy them slows down the eating process preventing one from eating a large amount in a short time. Many times, the shells are coated in salt. If you are monitoring your sodium intake, be sure to choose unsalted sunflower seeds, even those in their shells. Another way to help control your portion is to measure the amount you want to eat and place them in a bowl. Put the rest away so they are not easily accessible. Go to where you want to enjoy your seeds, away from the supply container. When you finish your allotment, it will be easier to stop eating them, than if you were going from “bag to mouth.” It takes far more personal discipline to stop eating when there is a lot of anything in front of you than if there is a measured portion with the rest having been put away.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Sunflower Seeds
* Add sunflower seeds to your favorite tuna, chicken, or turkey salad.
* Sprinkle green salads with sunflower seeds.
* Add sunflower seeds to scrambled eggs or an omelet.
* Use finely ground sunflower seeds as a breading in place of (or with) flour. This can be used on meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables.
* Sprinkle sunflower seeds on cold or hot cereals, such as oatmeal.
* Add sunflower seeds to homemade trail mix.
* Add sunflower seeds to homemade granola bars.
* Sprinkle fruit or yogurt parfaits with sunflower seeds.
* Add sunflower seeds to stir-fries.
* Sprinkle sunflower seeds over sautéed vegetables for some added crunch and flavor.
* Add them to veggie burgers for flavor and added nutrients.
* Sprinkle sunflower seeds on top of casseroles.
* Add them to baked goods like quick breads and muffins.
* Make sunflower seed butter and use as a dip or topping for apples, banana slices, celery, bell pepper, and carrot sticks, nut butter sandwiches, and toast.
* Add ground sunflower seeds to smoothies.
* Sunflower seeds can be used in pesto in place of pine nuts.
* Sprinkle sunflower seeds as a garnish on creamy soups, such as cream of potato, broccoli, or tomato soup.
* Sprinkle some sunflower seeds on tacos for a little extra crunch.
* Make a pie crust with sunflower seeds. Here’s a link to one version online… https://myquietkitchen.com/healthy-pie-crust-nut-free/#recipe
* Sprinkle some sunflower seeds on yogurt or ice cream.
* Stuff a pita bread with some salad and sunflower seeds for crunch, flavor and added nutrition.
* Top your favorite pasta dish with some sunflower seeds.
* Add sunflower seeds into your favorite cookie dough.
* Add sunflower seeds to your favorite quiche.
* Just so you know…do not eat the shells of sunflower seeds. They are tough and fibrous, and the human digestive system cannot break them down. Accidentally swallowing a small piece should be OK, but eating at lot of them could cause a serious blockage in the gastrointestinal tract.
* Add sunflower seeds to stuffed peppers.
* Add sunflower seeds to your favorite bean or legume salad.
* Add sunflower seeds to a veggie pizza.
* Add sunflower seeds to a cabbage slaw.
* Top your favorite fruit salad with some sunflower seeds.
* Top cooked winter squash, such as butternut squash with caramelized sunflower seeds. To caramelize the seeds, heat some seeds (such as 1/3 cup) in a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat for about 3 minutes. Stir them constantly so they don’t burn. Stir in a little brown sugar (such as 2 tablespoons). Stir constantly until the sugar is melted and the sunflower seeds are coated evenly. Remove from the pan and top your cooked squash with the hot seeds. Or remove the seeds from the pan and allow them to cool to be enjoyed as a snack or to be used later.
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Sunflower Seeds
Basil, chili pepper, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, dill, garlic, mint, Old Bay Seasoning mix, parsley
Foods That Go Well with Sunflower Seeds
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans (green), beef, black beans, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, hazelnuts, kidney beans, lentils, nuts (in general), seeds (other, i.e., flax, pumpkin), tofu (esp. silken), tuna
Vegetables: Arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, chives, fennel, leeks, greens (salad), mushrooms, onions, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
Fruits: Apples, apricots, cherries (esp. dried), coconut, cranberries (dried), dates, fruit (in general), lemon, mango, peaches, raisins, watermelon
Grains and Grain Products: Kasha, millet, oats, pasta, quinoa, rice, wheat berries
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Cheese (in general), milk, Parmesan cheese, sour cream, yogurt
Other Foods: Agave nectar, brown sugar, caramel, honey, maple syrup, molasses, mustard, nutritional yeast, tamari, vinegar (esp. balsamic)
Sunflower seeds have been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Baked goods (i.e., breads, cookies, muffins, pie crusts), casseroles, cereals (i.e., hot breakfast), desserts, granola, muesli, pancakes, pastas, pâtés, risottos, salads, soups, Southwestern (U.S.) cuisine, spreads, stuffings, trail bars and mixes, veggie burgers
Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Sunflower Seeds
Add sunflower seeds to any of the following combinations…
Basil + Garlic + Olive Oil + Pasta
Flaxseeds + Millet
Lentils + Onions in Pâtés
Quinoa + Raisins
Herby Pesto with Sunflower Seeds https://www.botanicalkitchen.com/recipes/herby-pesto/
Shaved Squash Salad with Sunflower Seeds https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/shaved-squash-salad-with-sunflower-seeds
Sunflower Seeds Pesto https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/sunflower-seed-pesto
Cinnamon Vanilla Sunflower Butter https://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/cinnamon-vanilla-sunflower-butter-recipe.html#recipe
Roasted Pumpkin Salad Recipe https://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/roasted-pumpkin-salad-recipe.html#recipe
Lentil Carrot Avocado Salad https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Lentil-Carrot-Avocado-Salad-2139484
Pomegranate Sunflower Seeds Salad https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Pomegranate-Sunflower-Seeds-Salad-1082918
Maple Sunflower Seeds Granola https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Maple-Sunflower-Seeds-Granola-1093748
Old Bay Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Old-Bay-Sunflower-Seeds-1590607
Multigrain Pilaf with Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Multigrain-Pilaf-with-Sunflower-Seeds-9243967
Maple Roast Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Maple-Roast-Sunflower-Seeds-964256
Spicy Roasted Pumpkin and Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Spicy-Roasted-Pumpkin-and-Sunflower-Seeds-2137869
Arugula Salad with Grapes and Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Arugula-Salad-with-Grapes-and-Sunflower-Seeds-9580758
Massaged Broccoli Rabe Salad with Sunflower Seeds and Cranberries https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Massaged-Broccoli-Rabe-Salad-with-Sunflower-Seeds-_-Cranberries-1861644
Berry Spinach Salad with Spicy Maple Sunflower Seeds https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Berry-Spinach-Salad-with-Spicy-Maple-Sunflower-Seeds-1457945
Simple Arugula Salad with Sunflower Seeds and Parmesan https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Simple-Arugula-Salad-with-Sunflower-Seeds-and-Parmesan-2435236
Nut-Free Vegan Pie Crust (Allergy-Friendly) https://myquietkitchen.com/healthy-pie-crust-nut-free/#recipe
Joachim, David. (2010) The Food Substitutions Bible. 2nd Edition. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Robert Rose, Inc.
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.