Sesame seeds are truly one of the most ancient foods on Earth. In fact, sesame plants are the oldest known plant species to be grown primarily for their seeds and oils rather than for their leaves, fruits or vegetables.
Highly valued in eastern, Mediterranean and African cultures, sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum) have been used for thousands of years to flavor foods, provide essential fats and enhance skin health. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed and boasts a rich, nutty flavor, which is why sesame oil, tahini and the seeds themselves are common ingredients in cuisines across the world.
Ready to learn more about this delicious and nutritious ingredient? Keep reading for a full list of sesame seeds benefits and side effects, plus how you can add this super seed to your daily diet.
What Are Sesame Seeds?
Although sesame seeds are a common ingredient added to everything from stir-fries to bagels, many people often wonder: Where do sesame seeds come from?
Sesame seeds are derived from a flowering sesame plant in the genus Sesamum. Sesame seed pods burst open when they reach full maturity, revealing the seeds of the sesame seed plant, which hold its valuable oils. Sesame seeds contain up to 60 percent oil and 20 percent protein, making them a high source of both essential fatty acids and amino acids.
The seeds contain about 50 percent to 60 percent of a fatty oil that is characterized by two beneficial members of the lignan family: sesamin and sesamolin. Sesame oil also contains two other phenolic compounds, sesamol and sesaminol, which are formed during the refining process.
Oil derived from sesame is rich in linoleic and oleic acids, the majority of which are gamma-tocopherol and other isomers of vitamin E. Some of the specific amino acids found in each serving include lysine, tryptophan and methionine. (1)
- Rich in Essential Nutrients
- Lower Cholesterol Levels
- Reduce Blood Pressure
- Balance Hormone Levels
- Fight Cancer Cell Growth
- Boost Fat-Burning
- Enhance Nutrient Absorption
1. Rich in Essential Nutrients
One of the biggest black sesame seeds benefits is their impressive nutrient profile. In fact, sesame seeds are a good source of protein and fiber as well as key minerals like copper, manganese and calcium.
The iron found in sesame can help prevent iron deficiency tied to anemia and boost low energy levels. And although copper deficiency isn’t as common, sesame seeds provide a good dose of the copper needed per day to maintain nerve, bone and metabolic health.
Sesame also contains a good deal of calcium, although there is some controversy over how useful that calcium is. Like all nuts and seeds, sesame seeds contain some natural antinutrients that may block a percentage of the calcium from actually being absorbed and used within the body. Essentially, the calcium is bound to oxalic acid, making it less bioavailable and beneficial.
Hulling sesame seeds, which is a process that involves removing their outer skin, can help remove a much of the oxalic acid but unfortunately also removes most of the calcium, fiber, potassium and iron. In some parts of the world, such as Japan, whole toasted sesame seeds are commonly eaten and considered an essential part of the diet because eating them unhulled, whole and toasted can help improve assimilation of calcium and other nutrients.
Cooking has been shown to remove most of the oxalates from other foods, although this process raises other concerns for damaging the delicate oils found within the seeds. (2) There seems to be pros and cons of eating sesame seeds in different ways, so essentially choose the kind that you like best and round it out with a healthy diet to fill in any nutritional gaps.
2. Lower Cholesterol Levels
Sesame seeds rank highest in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols of nearly all nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. Phytosterols are a type of phytonutrient or plant sterols structurally similar to cholesterol that act in the intestine to lower cholesterol absorption. (3) They help displace cholesterol within the intestinal tract, reducing the pool of available and absorbable cholesterol. Some research has shown that among 27 different nuts and seeds tested, sesame seeds, alongside wheat germ, come out on top as having the highest phytosterol content. (4)
Sesame seeds are also rich in lignans, a type of polyphenol that can improve lipid profiles and normalize cholesterol levels. Lignans help naturally lower cholesterol in a few ways and can reduce cholesterol levels in both the blood and liver. (5, 6) For this reason, researchers sometimes refer to sesame seed phytochemicals as “hypocholesterolemic agents” thanks to their potent cholesterol-lowering properties.
3. Reduce Blood Pressure
Sesame oil is considered a strong antihypertensive thanks to its ability to help naturally lower blood pressure levels. One 2006 study published in the Yale Journal of Biological Medicine investigated the effects of sesame oil on people with high blood pressure and found that it was effective at reducing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (7)
Not only that, but researchers also found that supplementing with sesame oil for 45 days was able to decrease cell damage caused by lipid peroxidation while also increasing antioxidant status to promote better heart health in patients.
4. Balance Hormone Levels
Research suggests that sesame seeds may be especially beneficial for post-menopausal women thanks to their ability to increase and regulate levels of sex hormones, improve antioxidant status, and help manage cholesterol levels to optimize health. Plus, sesamin, a type of sesame lignan, was shown to be converted by intestinal microflora to enterolactone, a phytoestrogen compound with estrogen-like activity. (8)
Additionally, because they’re high in essential fatty acids, protein and a wide range of important vitamins and minerals, sesame seeds can also be included as a staple ingredient in a pregnancy diet by maintaining healthy hormone levels and supplying the nutrients needed for a healthy mother and baby.
5. Fight Cancer Cell Growth
Much like flaxseeds, sesame seeds are a rich source of lignan precursors. These specific compounds are produced by the microflora in the colon and have been shown to have powerful cancer-fighting effects on several specific types of cancer.
A 2005 in vitro study conducted by the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto investigated the effects of giving 25 grams of unground whole flaxseeds and sesame seeds to healthy postmenopausal women over a four-week period. Urine test results showed an increase in mammalian lignans from the women receiving both whole flaxseeds and sesame seeds, suggesting that both are effectively converted by the bacterial flora in the colon, potentially helping to protect against the growth and spread of colon cancer cells. (9)
Similarly, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition also found that dietary lignans may act as a natural cancer treatment to reduce breast cancer risk by modifying tumor characteristics. In the study, lignan intakes were associated with a lower risk of estrogen receptor negative breast cancer. After tracking total and specific lignan intake of 683 women with breast cancer and 611 healthy women without breast cancer, it was found that the women with the highest intake of lignans compared to the lowest intake had a 40 percent to 50 percent lower chance of developing breast cancer. (10)
6. Boost Fat-Burning
Some studies suggest that certain compounds found in sesame seeds could help boost fat-burning and keep your waistline in check. In fact, a 2012 animal study out of Maryland actually found that giving rats a powder enriched with lignans helped reduce both body weight and fat accumulation. (11)
Plus, sesame seeds are also high in fiber, packing in 1.1 grams into a single tablespoon. Dietary fiber helps slow the emptying of the stomach to keep you feeling fuller for longer. It can also keep blood sugar levels steady to prevent spikes and crashes, which can lead to increased hunger and cravings. (12)
7. Enhance Nutrient Absorption
The lignans found in black sesame seeds can enhance the antioxidant activity of vitamin E, maximizing the health benefits and helping you get the most nutritional value possible from each serving. (13) Sesame seeds also contain a good amount of essential fatty acids, which are needed for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. For this reason, including a source of healthy fat like sesame seeds, sesame oil or sesame butter with a nutrient-dense meal can help you actually absorb and use the nutrients more efficiently.
Take one look at the sesame seeds nutrition profile, and it’s easy to see why these tiny but powerful seeds are stellar for your health. Each serving of sesame seed nutrition squeezes in a good amount of essential nutrients, including high amounts of protein, copper, manganese and calcium.
Just one tablespoon (about nine grams) of sesame seeds contains approximately: (14)
- 51.6 calories
- 2.1 grams carbohydrates
- 1.6 gram protein
- 4.5 grams fat
- 1.1 grams dietary fiber
- 0.4 milligram copper (18 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram manganese (11 percent DV)
- 87.8 milligrams calcium (9 percent DV)
- 31.6 milligrams magnesium (8 percent DV)
- 1.3 milligrams iron (7 percent DV)
- 56.6 milligrams phosphorus (6 percent DV)
- 0.7 milligram zinc (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (4 percent DV)
In addition to the nutrients listed above, sesame seeds also contain a small amount of niacin, folate, riboflavin, selenium and potassium.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Sesame seeds are often used in many forms of holistic medicine for centuries, thanks to their medicinal and health-promoting properties.
On an Ayurvedic diet, sesame seeds have been used to increase stamina, enhance fertility, increase energy levels and help satisfy the stomach. Sesame oil is another common ingredient used in the practice of Ayurveda and is used topically for self-massages. Sniffing or gargling with sesame oil is also thought to help clear out mucus and promote oral health.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, black sesame seeds can help tonify the blood, build the spirit, and improve kidney and liver health. They are also used to help naturally treat issues like constipation, dizziness, weakness and backaches.
Sesame Seeds vs. Chia Seeds vs. Sunflower Seeds vs. Poppy Seeds
Sesame, chia, sunflower and poppy seeds are some of the most popular seeds on the market and are often added to everything from yogurt to trail mix and desserts. Sunflower seeds are often eaten as is for a delicious and salty snack, but sesame, chia and poppy seeds are more often used in recipes to add a bit of crunch and a burst of health benefits to dishes.
In terms of nutrition, all three are high in fiber and contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals that are essential to health. Gram for gram, sunflower seeds are the highest in calories but also contain the most protein. Chia seeds are unrivaled in terms of fiber, with over four times as much fiber per gram than sunflower seeds and three times as much as sesame seeds. Meanwhile, poppy seeds pack in the highest amount of calcium and manganese, two important minerals that play a central role in bone health. (15, 16) Sesame seeds, on the other hand, are packed with copper, a trace mineral that regulates tissue growth and repair and maintains metabolism. (17)
For best results, try rotating between all four in your diet to take advantage of the multitude of health benefits that each has to offer.
Sesame Seeds vs. Sesame Oil vs. Tahini
Sesame seeds are commonly enjoyed in many different forms, including tahini and sesame seeds oil. Although each boasts a similar set of health benefits, there are some unique differences in the ways that they are produced and the nutrients that they contain.
Tahini, also sometimes called tahina, is a type of sesame seed paste that is made by grinding sesame seeds. Taking advantage of the tahini nutrition profile by adding a few servings to your diet is a tasty and convenient way to increase your intake of sesame seeds and enjoy the numerous nutrients contained in every bite. Each serving is low in tahini calories but contains a hearty dose of fiber, iron, magnesium and heart-healthy fats.
Sesame seed oil, on the other hand, is made by extracting the healthy oils from the seed, typically by using an expeller press or extraction machine. Commonly used as an ingredient in dips, curries and seasonings, many people wonder: Is sesame oil good for you? Sesame oil nutrition is high in both polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, both of which are great when it comes to heart health. Because of the antioxidant content contained in each serving, sesame oil benefits skin health and helps soothe inflammation to promote better health.
Where to Find and How to Use
Sesame seeds come in a number of different sizes and colors, including white, golden brown, black, yellow and beige varieties. Black sesame seeds, which are found mostly in China and Southeast Asia, are often said to have the strongest flavor, but the white or beige-colored seeds are the most commonly found in many American and European grocery stores and restaurants.
In developed nations, sesame seed are usually sold with their seed coats removed. After harvesting, the seeds are generally cleaned and hulled. An interesting fact is that even though a batch of sesame seeds with consistent appearance and color are perceived to be of better quality by consumers and can sell for a higher price, mixed colors are naturally harvested and then passed through an electronic color-sorting machine that rejects any that are discolored.
Any seeds that are rejected or not ripe when harvested are saved to be used for sesame oil production. Flour that remains after sesame oil extraction (called sesame meal) is about 35 percent to 50 percent protein and contains carbohydrates, which makes it one of the most preferred high-protein feeds for poultry and other livestock.
Making or buying sesame seed butter, also known as tahini, is another great option for how to eat sesame seeds. Tahini is a good alternative to peanut butter or other nut butters, especially if you have an intolerance to nuts. Tahini is usually made from whole toasted sesame seeds and therefore is a more refined product than using plain, whole and unground sesame seeds, although it’s still delicious and beneficial. Tahini is a staple ingredient in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, including hummus and babaganoush. It’s also used in a range of Asian appetizers and meals, including roasted eggplant as well as some curries and dressings.
When using whole sesame seeds at home, you can greatly enhance their natural nutty flavor by toasting sesame seeds in a dry skillet over low to medium heat until they’re golden brown and fragrant. There are plenty of online instructions for how to toast sesame seeds, but the process is very simple and takes just a few minutes from start to finish. Watch them carefully to make sure they don’t burn, turn black or give off a bad smell, which can mean that they’ve turned rancid.
There are a wide range of sesame seed recipes out there, from how to toast sesame seeds to how to bring their unique flavor to stir-fries, dips, desserts and appetizers — even falafel. Need a little inspiration? Here are some simple recipe ideas to get you started:
- Almond, Coconut and Sesame Seed Granola
- Homemade Tahini
- Stir Fry Zucchini Noodles
- Egg Tahini Salad
- Roasted Green Beans with Sesame and Garlic
There are believed to be thousands of different varieties of the sesame plant grown around the world today, most of which are wild and not harvested. Most wild species of the genus Sesamum are native to sub-Saharan Africa, but types including Sesame Indicum also originally stem from India. Sesame seed is one of the oldest oilseed crops known to man, mentioned in ancient scriptures of Babylon and Assyria over 4,000 years ago and domesticated well over 3,000 years ago.
Remains of sesame recovered from archeological sites have been dated to 3500–3050 B.C. Some records show that sesame was traded in parts of Mesopotamia and the Indian sub-continent around 2000 B.C., while others show it was cultivated in Egypt during the Ptolemiac period. It’s believed that ancient Egyptians called it sesemt, and it was included in the list of medicinal drugs in the ancient scrolls of the Ebers Papyrus.
Sesame fruit is actually a “capsule” that is rectangular and two to eight centimeters long. The fruit naturally splits open and releases the seeds when it’s mature. Sesame plants are highly tolerant to droughts, durable and grow where many other crops may fail, which is why they have been a staple plant for so many years in deserts and barren areas.
The world harvested a whopping 4.8 million metric tons of sesame seeds in 2013. The largest producer of sesame seeds today is Myanmar, while the largest exporter is India, followed by Japan and China.
Risks and Side Effects
Like other nuts and foods, sesame can trigger allergic reactions in some people. Some research suggests that the prevalence of sesame allergy cases might be on the rise, possibly due to cross-contamination with other nuts or seeds and due to manufacturing processes. People who have a difficult time digesting nuts and seeds, including almonds, flaxseeds and chia seeds, might want to use caution when eating sesame seeds.
Sesame seeds also contain oxalates as mentioned earlier, and most of the calcium found in the seed hull comes in the form of calcium oxalate. Most tahini found in grocery stores is most often made with seed kernels that remain after the hull has been removed. These products are generally safe in moderate amounts on an oxalate-restricted diet, but keep in mind that intact seed hulls might have more oxalates, which can aggravate some conditions like kidney stones and gout.
Product labels don’t always indicate whether the hulls have been removed or not, so you can judge by the color and taste. Tahini made from whole, non-hulled seeds is darker and more bitter-tasting than the heavier oxalate types made with hulled sesame kernels.
Additionally, anyone with Wilson’s disease, which is a genetic disorder that causes copper to accumulate in the liver, should avoid large amounts of sesame seeds due to their copper content.
- Sesame seeds are derived from the sesame plant, which produces small pods that burst open upon reaching maturity to reveal the nutritious seed.
- Each serving of sesame seeds packs in a good amount of fiber, protein, copper, manganese and calcium, along with a range of other important vitamins and minerals.
- Some of the potential sesame seeds health benefits include better nutrient absorption, increased fat-burning, improved hormone levels, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and decreased cancer cell growth.
- Sesame seeds can be consumed as is or made into tahini or sesame oil as a nutritious and delicious dietary addition.
- Try adding sesame seeds to stir-fries, dips, dressings and salads to bring the benefits of this super seed into your diet.