Seeds are small but mighty when it comes to nutrition. Check out food labels and you will see them highlighting a variety of newer food products. This is one food trend you may want follow for a number of good reasons.
Some of the more popular seeds include sunflower, pumpkin (pepita), poppy, sesame, hemp, chia, flax, nigella and mustard. Of these, the interest in chia and hemp seeds appears to be rising most rapidly and many consumers view them with almost “superfood” status.
With the increasing interest in replacing processed snacks with healthier versions, seeds have stepped forward. In response, food manufacturers have been expanding the production of snack options, many of which contain seeds as one or more of the ingredients. The interest in sprouted seeds is also on the rise.
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds come in whole or shelled versions. Some of the nutrients in the other seeds, such as flax, are more available to the body when the seeds are ground. A few, like sesame and sunflower, are delicious when made into a seed butter or paste. Toasting or roasting gives seeds a nuttier flavor. An example of some newer seed products would be hemp milk, hemp tofu and hemp yogurt.
All the seeds are a very good source of fiber (both insoluble and soluble), as well as some heart-healthy oils. They contain various amounts of protein, some minerals (such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, zinc), omega three fatty acids (in the form of ALA), vitamin E, some B vitamins, other phytonutrients, and some (like flaxseed) contain lignans. These latter substances appear to have mildly positive hormonal effects.
The wide range of nutrients found in seeds can contribute to a number of health benefits. Some assist with bone health, some exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Fiber helps to reduce the risk of a number of medical concerns (like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar), keeps the intestinal tract working optimally, and encourages the growth of the ”good” microbes in the gut related to immune system health.
Since each seed type has its own unique nutrient profile, consuming a variety would be a good goal. Although seeds are calorie dense similar to nuts, consumed in moderation they can be satisfying and filling. This can result in a reduced intake of the more processed, less nutritious alternatives. Seeds can also make a great grab-and-go snack.
Like nuts, they are also less perishable so can be portioned into several servings to use over the week. They do not need refrigeration so can be kept in a car, office, backpack, briefcase, or gym bag without concern for food safety.
Besides using seeds for snacking, they can be added to a number of recipes to add crunch and a nutty flavor. Baked goods are an easy place to slip in some seeds. Besides whole or ground seeds, seed flours and meals are another way to incorporate them into baked items. This might be muffins, quick breads, scones, yeast breads, and other similar recipes. Ground seeds can be added to yogurt, cooked cereal, a smoothie, or cold cereal.
Seeds are versatile in that they can be slipped into either savory or sweet dishes. A fruit or vegetable salad is a great place to toss some seeds. They work well mixed with bread crumbs and herbs for toppings or coatings. Try smearing coarse-ground mustard seeds on chicken breasts, coat with an herbed bread crumb/seed mix, and then bake.
In many restaurants, seeds are showing up in entrees and grain or vegetable side dishes. They can add texture to cooked whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, or a stir fry. The topping for fruit crisps or to a granola recipe are easy places to add some seeds.
Seed butters provide protein and “staying power” to meals. Spread some on whole grain bread or crackers, or use as a dip for fresh fruit or vegetables. Hummus has become a popular food item and sesame paste (tahini) is a key ingredient.
Numerous companies are adding seeds to breads, cereals, chips, and crackers. Note that just the addition of some seeds does not necessarily mean the food is healthy. Some products that have seeds just sprinkled on the top may not contain a significant amount of seeds. You would still need to evaluate the product based on the order of the ingredient list, what else it contains, and how it was prepared. If it is a grain food, it may not contain whole grain flour so you will need to check the label.
When it comes to purchasing and storing seeds, there are a few considerations. Unopened packages of seeds can have a shelf-life of about a year if kept in a cool, dry location. Once opened, they should be refrigerated or frozen. For better flavor and maximal nutrient content, seeds that need grinding should be ground right before use. You can use a clean coffee or spice grinder.
So think of all the amazing ways you can slip some seeds into your day.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is board-certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Visit www.pamstuppynutrition.com for nutrition information, healthy cooking tips and recipe ideas.