Sunflower seeds come from the center of the magnificent, daisy-like flower of the familiar North American sunflower plant. Named because its flowers resemble the sun, and because they twist on their stems to follow the sun throughout the day, this imposing plant can grow as tall as 10 feet.
Native Americans used the seeds of this wild plant in a variety of ways. They ate the seeds for a snack and possibly squeezed them for their oil. The seeds were also pounded into a meal, which was then combined with other vegetables, or cooked up as a mash, or used to make bread.
Around 1500, Spanish explorers took the indigenous North American sunflower to Europe, where it was considered an exotic curiosity and was used for ornamental purposes. By the 1700s, someone had discovered that the tightly packed flower heads contained seeds that were valuable at the very least for their oil. In Russia, sunflower seeds took off in a big way, and were prized for their oil as well as their kernels. By the late 1800s, the seeds had made their way back to the United States as a commercial food product imported from Russia. Only recently has the sunflower become a cultivated crop in the United States.
Sunflower seeds: nutrition
Sunflower seeds are an outstanding source of vitamin E. They also supply good amounts of folate, iron, manganese, selenium, vitamin B6, zinc, protein, and fiber, as well as essential linoleic acid. They are a nutrient-dense food with a concentrated array of vitamins and minerals, and are rather high in calories, so include them in your diet in moderation.
For a full list of nutrients, see Sunflower Seeds in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of sunflower seeds
While most sunflower seeds crop are processed for oil, a different type is sold as snacks. Oil seeds are generally small and black whereas the delicately flavored seeds that we eat are larger, with white shells. These are called “confection” sunflower seeds.
The plump, nutlike kernels of the “confection sunflower” are allowed to dry on the flower, covered so the birds can’t get them. The dried seeds are then removed and processed into a variety of forms:
- Kernels: Sunflower seeds are hulled and the kernels are either packaged unroasted, dry-roasted in a slow oven, or oil-roasted. The roasted kernels are usually also salted.
- Sunflower oil: Pale yellow in color and light in flavor, sunflower oil has a relatively low smoke point. It is used in salad dressings and baking.
- Whole unhulled: The seeds of sunflowers are dried on the flower and then removed, but not hulled. The whole, unhulled seeds are then brined and sold as a snack.
Most sunflower seeds are sold in packages, so be sure to check the sell-by date when you purchase.
When buying whole in-shell sunflower seeds in bulk, check to see that they have clean, unbroken shells. If allowed, sample a few to be sure that they’re crisp and fresh as opposed to limp, rubbery, or off-tasting. There shouldn’t be a lot of dust and debris in the bin. Because they are high in fat, sunflower seeds are susceptible to rancidity, so shop at a store where there is a rapid turnover in bulk products.
How to store sunflower seeds at home
Because of their high fat content, sunflower seeds that you won’t be using within a few days should be kept in a cool, dry place in a tightly closed container. Better still, keep them in the refrigerator or freezer. If they are properly wrapped, freezing will not significantly affect their flavor or texture.
How to prepare sunflower seeds
If sunflower seeds are hulled, you can use them as they are. To heighten their flavor or to crisp them if they’ve gotten soggy, raw (unroasted) sunflower seeds can be either oven-toasted or toasted in a dry skillet on top of the stove.
7 recipe ideas for sunflower seeds
1. Grind sunflower seeds and substitute for some of the flour in a pie crust.
2. Make pesto with sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts.
3. Make sunflower seed butter by grinding the seeds in a food processor until pasty. Use as you would peanut butter.
4. Sprinkle toasted sunflower seeds over salads.
5. Sauté vegetables and top with toasted sunflower seeds.
6. Add sunflower seeds to muffin, quick bread, and cookie recipes.
7. Toss chopped, steamed broccoli with raisins and sunflower seeds for a broccoli salad. Dress with a bit of mayonnaise and apple cider vinegar.
Also see Seeds for Your Health.