Perhaps most well-known as the salty snack of choice found in nearly every baseball player’s pocket, the benefits of sunflower seeds extend way beyond their irresistible flavor and satisfyingly crunchy texture. In fact, sunflower seeds are jam-packed with a wealth of important nutrients and have been associated with a multitude of health benefits, ranging from enhanced skin health to protection against bone loss.
So whether you’re chowing down on the seeds as a snack, adding them to salads or dishes, or making sunflower seed butter out of your seeds, there’s no shortage of ways to consume sunflower seeds and take advantage of their benefits.
What Are Sunflower Seeds?
The sunflower seed is considered the fruit of the sunflower, consisting of edible kernels surrounded by a black shell. The seeds are pressed to extract their oil or dehulled and roasted or consumed as a popular snack.
Sunflower seeds come from, of course, sunflowers. The name is a variation of “sun flower” because the flowers turn toward the sun as they bloom. The yellow flowers produce small, edible seeds that are gray or greenly colored and are found naturally in dark green, gray or black shells called “husks.”
According to the National Sunflower Association, sunflowers are actually native to North America, and some evidence shows that Native Americans may have been harvesting sunflowers as far back as 3000 B.C. However, they were later taken to Europe and then spread to Russia, where they were first commercialized as a crop and harvested for their sunflower seed oil. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they were brought back to North America, where they became popular for their oil, seeds and as a beautiful addition to your garden.
Sunflower seeds can also be added to salads, bars, breakfast bowls and desserts to give dishes a crunchy and satisfying twist. They can also be used to produce sunflower butter, a popular allergy-friendly alternative to nut butters made from peanuts or almonds.
So are sunflower seeds good for you? Sunflower seeds are loaded with many important nutrients and have been associated with a number of health benefits. In particular, studies show that the nutrients and compounds found in sunflower seeds could reduce the risk of heart disease, fight against cancer, improve thyroid function and keep blood sugar steady. And best of all, sunflower seeds are delicious and versatile, making it easy to add them into a healthy and well-rounded diet.
Sunflower seeds are considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Although there are relatively few calories in sunflower seeds, each serving packs in a serious punch of micronutrients like vitamin E, thiamine, manganese and copper.
One cup (about 46 grams) of dried sunflower seeds with the hull contains approximately:
- 269 calories
- 9.2 grams carbohydrates
- 9.6 grams protein
- 23.7 grams fat
- 4 grams dietary fiber
- 15.3 milligrams vitamin E (76 percent DV)
- 0.7 milligram thiamine (45 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligram manganese (45 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram copper (41 percent DV)
- 150 milligrams magnesium (37 percent DV)
- 24.4 micrograms selenium (35 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram vitamin B6 (31 percent DV)
- 304 milligrams phosphorus (30 percent DV)
- 104 micrograms folate (26 percent DV)
- 3.8 milligrams niacin (19 percent DV)
- 2.3 milligrams zinc (15 percent DV)
- 2.4 milligrams iron (13 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram riboflavin (10 percent DV)
- 297 milligrams potassium (8 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligram pantothenic acid (5 percent DV)
In addition to the nutrients listed above, sunflower seeds also contain some calcium and vitamin C.
1. Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that is found in nuts and seeds, including sunflower seeds. Thanks to their high content of vitamin E, adding sunflower seeds into your diet could help reduce chronic inflammation, a condition that’s believed to contribute to a wide array of diseases. In fact, research shows that sustaining high levels of inflammation could be linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Consuming seeds like sunflower seeds has been shown to help lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, two of the major risk factors for heart disease. One study published in the journal ISRN Nutrition, for instance, showed that eating 30 grams of sunflower seeds each day led to reductions in total cholesterol, bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Sunflower seeds are also rich in phytosterols, which are beneficial plant compounds that block the absorption of cholesterol in the body to protect against heart disease. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the amount of beneficial phytosterols present in nuts and seeds was higher in sunflower seeds than almost all other types.
2. May Help Fight Against Cancer
One of the most impressive sunflower seeds health benefits is the impressive content of antioxidants, which can help fight off disease-causing free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to cells. Some research also suggests that antioxidants could play a central role in other aspects of health and disease and may even reduce the risk of conditions like cancer.
Studies show that the nutrients found in sunflower seeds have chemo-preventive compounds that block cancer development by shutting off tumor growth. The antioxidants found in sunflower seeds are utilized for DNA repair and work to slow the growth of mutated cancer cells. This makes sunflower seeds an excellent cancer-fighting food and a worthy addition to any anti-cancer diet.
Vitamin E has also been proven effective in studies at aiding in cancer prevention. While research is still inconclusive about the role of vitamin E supplementation in cancer prevention, studies show that getting enough vitamin E from dietary sources may be protective against several types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Sunflower seeds also contain selenium, an antioxidant important for cancer prevention. Selenium has also been shown in studies to aid in DNA repair and detoxing the body of harmful, damaged cells. Selenium helps stop the proliferation of cancer cells and stalls tumor growth through apoptosis, the self-destruction of damaged cells by the own body, including those found in cancerous tumors.
3. Support Thyroid Function
The thyroid gland is involved in many aspects of health, including the regulation of body temperature, heart rate and metabolism. Thyroid problems can cause a range of symptoms, including as weight gain, fatigue and abnormal body temperatures.
Researchers at the National Center for Environmental Health estimate that nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population is affected by either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, with women and older people at a higher risk. Selenium is an important mineral that’s crucial to thyroid function, and fortunately, it’s plentiful in the sunflower seed nutrition profile.
In fact, one of the best ways to improve thyroid function naturally is to include more selenium and iodine in your diet from nutrient-rich foods like sunflower seeds.
4. Combat Bone Loss and Muscle Cramps
Sunflower seeds is a food high in magnesium, an essential mineral that the standard Western diet is often lacking. Magnesium plays many important roles within the body — it helps balance the calcium/potassium ratio within cells, is crucial to overall cardiovascular health and aids in healthy blood pressure.
It’s also involved in keeping the skeletal structure healthy and helping prevent conditions related to bone loss, such as osteoporosis. Additionally, magnesium helps with blood clotting and bone calcification and is thought to reduce chronic migraine headaches, constipation, chronic fatigue, and even symptoms associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Pantothetic acid, another nutrient found in sunflower seeds, plays an important part in synthesizing fat, regulating hormones and maintaining healthy brain function. While a severe deficiency in pantothenic acid is not very common, mild deficiencies include symptoms like fatigue, muscle cramps and plantar fasciitis, which is a common, painful injury within the shin and feet that often affects athletes.
5. Balance Blood Sugar Levels
Consuming a high-fiber diet rich in foods like sunflower seeds has been shown to help balance blood sugar levels. This is because fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream, preventing spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels and decreasing the chance of developing diabetes or insulin resistance.
High blood sugar levels and insulin resistance can lead to further inflammation, weight gain and even autoimmune responses. Fortunately, the powerful nutrients in sunflower seeds can help prevent the unstable blood sugar levels that many people experience due to diets too high in sugar, refined grains, sweetened beverages and processed foods. In addition to fiber, magnesium has been associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes in some studies.
6. Promote Skin Health
Studies show that the antioxidant vitamin E is especially useful for maintaining youthful, strong and healthy skin. Sunflower seeds contain vitamin E in addition to essential fatty acid lipids that help keep skin hydrated and free from damage.
Animal models have shown that sunflower seeds are able to keep coats and skin healthy and free from signs of damage even with age, and researchers believe that the same sunflower seeds benefits for hair and skin may also apply to humans.
Sunflower Seeds vs. Flaxseeds vs. Chia Seeds
Sunflower seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds are three of the most popular varieties of edible seeds. All three are favored for their delicious flavor, crunchy texture and stellar nutritional profiles.
There are some differences in the ways that they are typically consumed, however. For example, because the hulls of the flaxseed and sunflower seed can be very tough to digest, it’s recommended to opt for ground flaxseed over whole and to remove the shell of the sunflower seed before eating. Chia seeds, on the other hand, can be consumed as is and are often added to liquids to form a gel-like consistency.
In terms of nutrition, there are also some notable differences. Sunflower seeds calories are the highest per ounce, followed by flaxseeds and chia seeds. However, sunflower seeds are also the highest in protein and important micronutrients like copper, vitamin E and vitamin B6. Meanwhile, chia seeds are significantly higher in fiber, phosphorus and calcium while flaxseed contains a hearty dose of thiamine and manganese.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Thanks to its concentrated nutrient profile, the sunflower seed is thought to have many health benefits and is often used in several forms of holistic medicine.
Sunflower seeds are considered a tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine and are typically used to aid in digestion and promote regularity. Sunflower seeds are also used to help prevent coughing, hydrate the skin and improve the health of the lungs.
On an Ayurvedic diet, meanwhile, sunflower seeds are considered highly nutritive and satisfying. Spicing them up with some healing herbs and spices is an excellent way to amp up the flavor and reap the rewards of sunflower seeds as a nourishing snack.
Risks and Side Effects
Sunflower seeds are popular for both their rich flavor and extensive nutrient profile. They also boast a long list of sunflower seed benefits, ranging from improved thyroid function to protection against chronic disease. However, there are some downsides to this popular food that should also be considered.
Salted sunflower seeds can be high in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure and other issues like bone loss and kidney problems. Opting for raw, unsalted sunflower seeds, keeping your intake in moderation and pairing them with a good variety of low-sodium foods can prevent these health problems and keep your sodium intake under control.
Sunflower seeds are also high in omega-6 fatty acids. While your body does need these healthy fats, having too many omega-6 fatty acids in your diet and not enough omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to inflammation and health problems like heart disease. Be sure to include several other heart-healthy omega-3 foods in your meals throughout the day to keep your ratio of essential fatty acids in check.
Additionally, because sunflower seeds have a very high oil content, it is common for them to be used as the base for processed polyunsaturated oils. While sunflower seeds themselves are very healthy, oils made using sunflower seeds can be unfavorable because they do not hold up well to high-heat cooking.
Polyunsaturated fats can easily become rancid and undergo oxidation when you cook with them, turning them into a vehicle for toxins rather than nutrients. The high heat and pressure involved in extracting oil from something like sunflower seeds destroys their antioxidants and alters the chemical nature of the fat, creating dangerous free radicals.
Many types of polyunsaturated oils are inexpensive and widely available because they are made with cheap crops like corn and soybeans, which are often genetically modified. Unrefined coconut oil is a much better option than sunflower oil when it comes to high-heat cooking. This oil is far less processed and also has a higher heat threshold, reducing the risk of free radical formation and nutrient loss.
How to Eat
Today, sunflower seeds are one of the most commonly consumed seeds and are harvested and enjoyed around the globe. There are actually three types of sunflower seeds, including linoleic, high oleic and nusun sunflowers seeds. Linoleic is the type that is commonly used by most most sunflower seeds brands. The three varieties all vary slightly in terms of nutritional value but are very similar in terms of health benefits and uses.
They can be consumed raw, sprouted, roasted, toasted and just about any way in between. They are commonly ground into sunflower seed butter, which has become an increasingly popular alternative to other nut butters over the past decade, since sunflower seeds tend to be much less likely to cause an allergic reaction that other nuts like peanuts or almonds.
Sunflower seeds that have been shelled are said to have a mild nutty taste compared to other seeds and a medium to firm texture. They are easy to incorporate into recipes since their taste is not overwhelming, and their small size makes them ideal for adding them to recipes like veggie burgers or ground mixes.
Sunflower seeds can be found in either shelled or unshelled varieties, meaning their hard husks will either be intact or removed. When choosing your seeds, look for those that are uniform in color without any major yellow spots and find seeds that are firm, plump and not broken. It is common for the shelled seeds to have black and white stripes on them, so don’t be concerned if this is what you find in stores; you can always de-shell them afterward. If you are buying sunflower seed butter, be sure to check the ingredients label to make sure no other ingredients are added like hydrogenated fats, extra flavors or thickening agents.
Because the seeds are high in delicate polyunsaturated fats, they can easily go rancid if left out in the heat for too long. You will want to preserve their nutrients and keep them from spoiling by storing them in your refrigerator in an airtight container. Keeping them this way can help them stay fresh for several months without altering their taste.
You can also try harvesting sunflower seeds from mature sunflowers. Wondering how to harvest sunflower seeds? It typically involves preparing your flowers for a drying process in which they will produce edible seeds once the back of the flower head begins to turn yellow to yellow-brown.
You will want the sunflower to be completely dry in order for the seeds to fall out. This means half of the yellow petals should have dropped before you start picking out the mature seeds. Look for the seeds to begin to plump up and for their black-and-white striped shell colors to form, signaling that they are ready to consume.
Risks and Side Effects
Fortunately, sunflower seeds can be safely consumed by most people, and allergic reactions are rare. The seeds are not high in oxalates, purines or other substances like aflatoxins or mold that cause allergies, harm your metabolism and cause unwanted interactions with common medications.
The one thing to note about consuming sunflower seeds, however, is that they are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Balancing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is key to health; consuming higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids is linked to issues like inflammation and a higher risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Keep your intake in moderation, and aim for about one ounce of sunflower seeds per day. Additionally, be sure to vary your fat intake and include other healthy sources like coconut, wild-caught fish, ghee, grass-fed butter, walnuts, flaxseeds and other omega-3 fatty acids in order to get the most health benefits from your diet overall.
- Sunflower seeds are the edible fruit of the sunflower plant and are a popular addition to both meals and snacks.
- Are sunflower seeds healthy? Besides providing plenty of fiber, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, the nutrients found in sunflower seeds have also been linked to improved heart and skin health, decreased bone loss and muscle cramps, better blood sugar levels, improved thyroid function, and protection against cancer.
- For best results, select raw, unsalted varieties whenever possible, and steer clear of sunflower oil when it comes to high-heat cooking.
- Spice them up for a satisfying snack or add them to everything from veggie burgers to desserts and salads to take advantage of the unique health benefits of sunflower seeds.