Seeds: the new superfood
Seeds have been long overshadowed by nuts, which are definitely deserving of their nutritional acclaim. Now, however, it’s time for seeds to shine.
Fortunately, nuts have gotten over their fatty reputation and are now praised for their good fats and impressive nutrition profile. Similarly, seeds are finally emerging as an equal, a recognition that’s long overdue.
A new research review article may help propel seeds into the superfoods category. The authors identify eight “superseeds” and document the nutrients, phytonutrients (such as flavanols, lignans and carotenoids) and health benefits of each.
All seeds provide healthy unsaturated fats, but it’s fascinating to see in this heavily researched article the nutritional differences between the seeds and the scientific evidence demonstrating potential benefits — especially related to improving cardiovascular health and reducing inflammation. The researchers make a strong case for eating at least 1 ounce of seeds daily, such as chia, flaxseed and hemp seeds.
Seeds are part of the protein food group, and ½ ounce of seeds is considered the equivalent of 1-ounce serving of meat, poultry or seafood. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend varying protein choices, including more plant-based protein options and call for 5-ounce equivalents of seeds and nuts each week.
Seeds are versatile and nutritious.
Seeds are also suddenly showing up everywhere. Although they’ve been commonly found in nutrition bars, trail mixes, crackers, breads, granolas and cereals, seeds are being added to some unexpected foods like Land O’ Lakes butter spread with seeds, Greek yogurt, nut butters and bottled salad dressings.
Seeds are being transformed into dairy-free milk alternatives, such as sesame, hemp, quinoa and flax milks. They’re also being used for plant-based meat alternatives, including a tofu made out of pumpkin seeds called Pumfu and hempseed burgers and crumbles from a company called Good Seed.
Seed butters — especially sunflower, pumpkin and hemp seed butters — are edging in on the popularity of nut butters. Sesame seed butter, aka tahini, is more in demand than ever. This Middle Eastern staple is the star ingredient in hummus, but it’s now widely used in sauces, salad dressings, smoothies, baked goods and even cocktails.
The latest seed trend is all about sprouted seeds. Sprouting seeds supposedly helps us absorb more of the nutrients and makes the seeds crisper with a greater concentration of flavor.
Sprouting involves soaking the seeds to mimic the natural germination process. Then the seeds are dehydrated to preserve the flavor, crisp texture and nutrition. Look for flavored sprouted seeds sold in resealable bags for snacking or in bars and granolas.
Add seeds to your recipes.
Small but mighty, seeds are incredibly versatile, so it’s good to keep a variety stashed in your pantry, fridge or freezer to add to recipes.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Chicago and author of “The Superfood Swap” and “The Flexitarian Diet,” says her favorite way to use seeds is to make a superseed mix — equal parts chia, flax and hemp — that she adds to smoothies, tops oatmeal or yogurt bowls, stirs into nut butter and sprinkles on dark chocolate bark.
Here’s a closer look at eight superseeds and easy ways to enjoy them.
Black cumin seeds
More commonly known as nigella seeds, black cumin seeds are found frequently in Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. Less familiar in the U.S., black cumin seeds are one of the oldest known spices and were praised for centuries as a medicinal food. In fact, the Bible refers to it as curative black cumin.
Similar in appearance to black sesame seeds with a slightly bitter, peppery flavor, black cumin seeds are among the highest of all the superseeds in fiber — second only to chia seeds. They’re also rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc and polyunsaturated fats.
How to eat: Sprinkle on salads, potatoes and vegetable stir-fries for a satisfying crunch. Add to curry dishes, lentils and rice pilaf. Top flatbread, naan and other homemade breads with black cumin seeds.
Chia seeds have come a long way from being famous for making those funny chia pets grow. Now they’re praised for their nutrient profile and the amazing way they can quickly absorb liquid to transform into a tapioca-like pudding and a vegan egg replacer for baking.
Chia seeds beat out all other superseeds on fiber and selenium (a mineral vital for immunity and brain health), and they come close to flaxseed for the hefty amounts of ALA omega-3 fatty acids they contain. Chia seeds also provide plenty of protein, calcium and magnesium.
How to eat: Make your own chia pudding by combining 3 tablespoons of chia seeds and 1 cup of your favorite milk; refrigerate overnight and top with fruits, nuts, coconut shavings, cinnamon or other seasonings. Similarly, combine 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and 1 cup of mashed fruit for an easy chia jam for topping toast. Or add chia seeds to smoothie bowls, juice drinks, Greek yogurt, overnight oats and popsicles.
These little, brown, nutty-tasting superseeds win on the plant-based version of omega-3s (ALA), and are a good source of soluble fiber, the type that helps lower cholesterol and makes you feel fuller longer. Flaxseeds also contain lignans, a beneficial phytoestrogen that may help reduce the risk of certain cancers. Flaxseeds are excellent sources of magnesium, thiamin and manganese.
To reap the benefits, you must grind whole flaxseeds in a coffee grinder or blender first to help you absorb the nutrients. Otherwise, whole flaxseed may pass through your intestines undigested.
How to eat: Add coarse or finely ground flaxseeds to smoothie bowls, breads, muffins and other baked goods. Sprinkle ground flaxseeds over your hot or cold breakfast cereal. Stir a spoonful into a carton of Greek yogurt. Mix with breadcrumbs to make a crispy coating for chicken tenders or tofu nuggets. Make a vinaigrette with flaxseed oil and top your salad with ground flaxseeds.
Hemp seeds come from a similar plant as the cannabis plant, but it does not contain high levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana.
Of all the superseeds, hemp is highest in protein, and it’s one of the few plant foods containing the proper proportion of all nine essential amino acids. Hemp seeds are also the highest in magnesium, potassium, zinc and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Hemp seeds provide some ALA omega-3s (about half the amount in flax and chia), yet they also contain about three times the amount of omega-6. While both fatty acids are beneficial, it’s best to have a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Hemp seeds are also lower in fiber compared to the other superseeds.
How to eat: You can find hemp seeds whole or hulled, often called hemp hearts. Toss in salads, shakes, or smoothies, or sprinkle over cereal, overnight oats and Greek yogurt. Hemp seeds also add texture to baked goods.
A member of the mint family, perilla seeds have a nutty, licorice-like flavor. The seeds are often referred to as Korean perilla due to their extensive cultivation in Korea and use in Korean cuisine.
Of all the superseeds, perilla and black cumin seeds have the highest total phenolic compounds or health-promoting phytonutrients. That’s not surprising since both of these seeds are black or dark brown and typically a deep pigment is a cue of beneficial polyphenols inside. Perilla seeds are also rich in fiber, folate, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.
How to eat: Since perilla seeds are not as widely available as other seeds, you may need to order online or look for them in Korean grocery stores. Lightly toast and ground in a mortar and pestle or food processor to add to soups, roasted vegetables, kimchi and noodle dishes. Perilla powder is also sold to use in cooking.
Pumpkin seeds are especially abundant in minerals, including zinc, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, iron and copper. They’re second in line after hemp for protein content. You’ll find pumpkin seeds and “pepitas” when shopping — typically roasted, sprouted, salted, flavored or raw.
Pumpkin seed butter is also increasingly available. While pepitas are pumpkin seeds, they come from only certain types of pumpkins and do not require shelling. So store-bought pepitas may look different than the pumpkin seeds you may scoop out of your Halloween pumpkin.
How to eat: Snack on pumpkin seeds or pepitas raw or roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and savory seasonings. Add to granola bars and trail mix recipes, toss into salads or use as a garnish for soup. Puree pumpkin seeds for pesto or mole sauce. Mix into guacamole or salsa for crunch. Make pumpkin seed butter in your blender.
Typically thought of as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed from a plant in the amaranth family that grows in the South American Andes of Peru and Bolivia. It was heralded as the sacred seed of the Incas.
Quinoa is lower in healthy fats and higher in carbohydrates compared to the other superseeds. A 1-cup serving of cooked quinoa provides 8 grams of high-quality protein and 5 grams of fiber, along with an impressive array of minerals. Quinoa is gluten free and contains the most diverse phenolic profiles compared to all other superseeds.
How to eat: Cook similar to rice for making grain bowls and adding to salads, soups and stews. Use as a meat alternative in tacos, burritos and veggie burgers with beans. Make stuffed peppers with quinoa. Use quinoa instead of oats for a warm bowl of hot cereal topped with raisins, berries or bananas and cinnamon.
This Asian and Middle-Eastern food staple is highest in calcium, iron and copper compared to all other superseeds. Sesame seeds are also good sources of protein, fiber, magnesium and other minerals.
Just watch out: Some people are allergic to sesame, and the seeds were recently declared the ninth major food allergen — joining tree nuts, peanuts, soy, dairy, wheat, eggs, fish and shellfish as an ingredient that must be specifically called out on food packaging. All products that contain sesame seeds must be highlighted on labels after January 1, 2023.
How to eat: Toast for a nuttier flavor and crunch. Add to salads, stir-fried rice or cauliflower rice, steamed or roasted vegetables and noodle dishes. Brush salmon or tuna fillets with sesame oil and coat with black and white sesame seeds. Sprinkle on your avocado toast. Make cookies, candies and pastries with sesame seeds. Make your own tahini (sesame seed paste) for hummus and other recipes.
8 healthy seeds to eat:
— Black cumin seed.
— Chia seed.
— Hemp seed.
— Perilla seed.
— Pumpkin seed.
— Quinoa seed.
— Sesame seed.
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