Sesame seeds—those tiny tasty toppings you may encounter on bagels, breadsticks, and hamburger buns, as well as on sushi rolls and sesame chicken—are called the “queen of oil seeds” for good reason. Though they are not as much in the limelight as flaxseed, chia, and other so-called “super seeds,” they are a notable source of nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, copper, vitamin E, thiamin, calcium, magnesium, and manganese, plus unique lignans (sesamin and sesamolin), phytosterols (predominantly B-sitosterol), fiber, and other potentially beneficial compounds.
By weight, about half the seed is fat—mostly unsaturated. An ounce (3 tablespoons) has about 160 calories, 14 grams of fat, 5 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber.
The seeds, which vary in color from tan to black depending on their type and preparation, grow in the pods of a flowering plant, Sesamum indicum, native to India and Africa. The pods resemble okra and, like okra, are technically fruits. When they ripen, they split open at the slightest touch, releasing the seeds—hence one possible explanation for the expression “open sesame.” (This seed trait contributes to harvest losses, however, so scientists have developed shatter-resistant varieties). Each pod contains 50 to 100 or more seeds. The seeds are typically hulled (soaked to remove the outer husk) and lightly roasted, which gives them a nutty flavor and a browner color.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to eating just the seeds, since they are used to make other tasty and nutritious products.
All Things Sesame
If you like sesame, you don’t have to limit yourself to eating just the seeds, since they are used to make other tasty and nutritious products, including tahini and halvah.
Ancient seeds, modern claims
From Babylonia to the Far East, people have been consuming sesame seeds—and using them medicinally—for thousands of years.Hindu culture views them as a “symbol of immortality” and uses their oil in prayers and rituals associated with death. According to Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) medicine, the oil, when placed in the nostrils, can relieve anxiety and insomnia; when massaged on the head or given as an enema, it can head off headaches. The oil is also used in traditional medicine as a topical treatment for skin conditions, an antibacterial mouthwash, and a laxative, and to aid lactation and ease menstrual cramps. Chinese herbalists recommend eating black sesame seeds to treat blurred vision, tinnitus, and dizziness.
Today, websites tout them for everything from improving digestion and eradicating wrinkles to preventing diabetes and cancer. One site lists 20 “huge health benefits” of sesame; another hawks the seeds as the “best food for sex.” Needless to say, most of the claims are not backed by research. On the other hand, a number of studies have assessed sesame, with some promising findings.
Here’s a brief look at the sesame science, much hailing from the Middle East and Asia, where these seeds still reign supreme.
- For lowering cholesterol. In a small study in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006 from Taiwan, postmenopausal women who consumed about 2 ounces of sesame powder a day for five weeks had a 10 percent reduction in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Another study, in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition in 2012, found that white sesame seeds (about 1½ ounces a day for 60 days) produced a comparable reduction in people with high cholesterol. However, two studies from 2009 using a little less than an ounce of sesame a day did not find an improvement in cholesterol levels.
- For reducing blood pressure. At least three studies suggest that sesame can lower blood pressure. In a small study in the Nutrition Journal in 2011 from Thailand, for instance, people with prehypertension who consumed black sesame meal (in capsules) for four weeks had a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure (8 points, on average).
- For fighting oxidative stress. Despite limitations in the studies, an analysis of seven clinical trials, in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2016, concluded that sesame seeds reduce markers of oxidative stress among people with hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. In particular, sesame seeds raise blood levels of antioxidants (including vitamin E) and enzymes (like glutathione peroxidase) that protect against oxidative damage associated with some chronic diseases.
- For osteoarthritis. In a small Iranian studyin the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases in 2013, people with knee osteoarthritis who added 1½ ounces (about 4 tablespoons) of powdered sesame seeds a day to their usual treatment (acetaminophen and glucosamine) for two months reported greater pain relief than those just on their usual treatment.
- For diabetes. In a small study in Clinical Nutrition in 2011, people with type 2 diabetes were given sesame oil, diabetes medication, or both. Those in the combination group had the greatest blood sugar reductions over 60 days, leading the researchers to conclude that the oil has a “synergistic effect” with the medication.
- Other uses. It’s theorized that sesame may benefit bone health (due to its calcium, magnesium, and other components) and protect against hormone-related cancers (due to its lignans, which can bind to estrogen receptors)—but the research is limited to test tube and animal experiments; studies in people are needed to prove any such connections.
Note about allergies: The exact prevalence of sesame seed allergy is not known—by some estimates, 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the population is affected. But reports of reactions have risen over the past two decades, according to a 2012 review article in Current Allergy and Asthma Reports. A problem is that food labels don’t have to list sesame as a separate ingredient, but may instead refer to it as a “spice” or “natural flavoring” or call it by an unfamiliar name such as gingelly or sesamol. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned the FDA to require sesame allergen labeling. CSPI’s report includes a list of foods that may contain undisclosed sesame.
Bottom line: Sesame can add flavor to foods and may have some health benefits. But don’t take supplements (several products contain high concentrations of sesame lignans, in particular), since these have not been well studied, and their effects—good or bad—are largely unknown.