Since the beginning of time, humans have followed the lead of birds by gathering edible seeds for sustenance. Anthropologists believe that our ancient ancestors probably collected and ate just about any seed that wasn’t poisonous, storing them away for use all year long. To this day, seeds are a popular food source in cultures around the world, from sesame seeds, which are ground into a paste used in Mediterranean dishes, to chia seeds, which are used as “running food” by athletes in South America. While our repertoire of edible seeds is fairly limited, some other cultures eat a much wider variety, including exotics like lotus and papaya seeds.
What’s a seed? Seeds are essentially the embryo of a plant, with some stored “food” to provide for its growth, and an outer covering to protect it. Botanically speaking, edible seeds include grains such as wheat, barley and rice; legumes, including beans, lentils and peas; and nuts, like walnuts, almonds and pistachios. And some edible seeds, such as mustard, coriander, and poppy seeds, are categorized as spices, because they possess potent flavor in tiny amounts. So, in our culinary and nutrition lexicon, edible seeds are those like chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower.
Growing strong nutrition. Considering that every seed holds the magic of a new plant, they’re packed with nutrients, which include protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Studies have linked eating certain seeds with reductions in blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels, as well as anticancer and bone protection activity. While each seed possesses a different nutritional profile, they do have many things in common.
Protein. Edible seeds are a good source of protein, containing 4 – 9 grams (g) of protein per ounce—comparable to animal protein, which provides about 7 g of protein per ounce. Seeds can be an important source of protein for people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, or struggle to meet their protein needs. Healthy fats. These tiny powerhouses are rich in healthy fats, comprised of relatively low amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat, and high amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Some seeds—chia, flax, hemp—also are rich sources of the plant omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is linked with heart health. Hemp contains the rare fatty acids gamma-linolenic acid and stearidonic acid, which have been linked in preliminary research to health benefits, such as lowered blood pressure. In addition, many seeds contain phytosterols, compounds similar to cholesterol that block the absorption of cholesterol in the body.
Fiber. Many seeds are rich sources of fiber, providing at least 10% DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day). For example, flax seeds contain 8 g of fiber per ounce—providing 32% DV. And that’s not all; seeds also contain lignans, a special kind of fiber shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Slow-digesting carbs. Seeds contain moderate amounts of carbohydrates, but because they are accompanied with fat, protein and fiber, their glycemic index is generally low. Thus, including them in your diet can help you feel full longer.
Vitamins and minerals. These tiny gems are also stocked with an array of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins E and K, calcium, iron and zinc. Many of these micronutrients, such as vitamin E and selenium, are powerful antioxidants.
—Sharon Palmer, R.D.