Seeds, like nuts, have seen their nutritional reputation rise in recent years. They’re rich in healthy fats, as well as many nutrients. They’re also high in calories, with 120 to 150 per ounce, but an ounce (about three tablespoons) goes a long way.
Many common foods that we eat—including legumes, nuts and grains—are actually seeds or parts of seeds. Some seeds, such as sunflower, safflower and rape, are grown primarily for their oil. Others (such as sesame, poppy and pumpkin) are used as snacks and flavorings and are essential elements of many cuisines around the world.
Seeds consist of an embryo of a new plant surrounded by a store of nutrients for the seedling, covered by an outer layer. Besides healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, seeds are very rich in vitamins, minerals (including calcium, magnesium and potassium) and fiber, plus they have a fair amount of protein. Some seeds, notably sunflower, are among the best sources of vitamin E. Flax, chia and hemp seeds are among the richest sources of alpha-linolenic acid, a heart-healthy omega-3 fat related to those in fish.
Seeds also contain many other compounds (phytochemicals) that plants evolved to develop in order to protect themselves from oxidation, microorganisms and pests. Fortunately, it turns out that many of these compounds are potentially beneficial for people who eat them.
Keep in mind, while seeds are nutritious and contain interesting components, and there has been some promising lab and animal research on them, the proposed benefits for humans are hard to pin down. Don’t fall for too-good-to-be-true claims that certain seeds can prevent cancer, heart disease or whatever else ails you.
Best ways to enjoy seeds
Seeds are good food, and there are countless ways to use them. They add crunchy texture and a nutty or savory taste to other foods. You can add them to cakes and muffins; use them as toppings for breads and rolls; grind them for flour or fillings; add them to salads and yogurt; sprinkle them on hot or cold cereals and yogurt. The larger ones such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds can be eaten as snacks. Most taste better when toasted or roasted.
Watch out for added sodium in most packaged seeds. High in oil, seeds tend to turn rancid at room temperature, especially if they’ve been ground; refrigerating or freezing them will make them last longer.