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 (pods) and oils rather than for their leaves, fruit 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 a rich, nutty flavor, which is why sesame oil, tahini and the seeds themselves are common ingredients in cuisines across the world.
Sesame Seed Nutrition Facts
Sesame seeds come from a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum. Sesame seed pods burst open when they reach full maturity. The actual seeds of the sesame plant hold the valuable oils. Sesame seeds contain up to 55 percent oil and 20 percent protein, making them a high source of both essential fatty acids and certain 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, that 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. Sesame proteins (amino acids) include lysine, tryptophan and methionine.
One tablespoon of whole sesame seeds has about:
- 52 calories
- 4 grams fat
- 1 gram carbs
- 2 grams of protein
- 4 milligrams copper (18 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams manganese (11 percent DV)
- 87 milligrams calcium (9 percent DV)
- 31 milligrams magnesium (8 percent DV)
- 3 milligrams iron (7 percent DV)
- 57 milligrams phosphorus (6 percent DV)
- 7 milligrams zinc (5 percent DV)
- 1 milligrams thiamine (5 percent DV)
8 Benefits of Sesame Seeds
1. High Source of Cholesterol-Lowering Phytosterols
Thanks to recent studies investigating phytonutrients found in sesame seeds, specifically fatty acids and antioxidants, we now know that sesame seeds and sesame oil have phytoestrogen activity and powerful cholesterol-lowering effects.
Sesame seeds rank highest in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols of nearly all nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. Phytosterols are plant sterols structurally similar to cholesterol that act in the intestine to lower cholesterol absorption. Phytosterols displace cholesterol within the intestinal tract, reducing the pool of available absorbable cholesterol. Some research has shown that among 27 different nuts and seeds tested, sesame seeds come out on top (along with wheat germ) as having the highest phytosterol content.
They contain approximately 400 grams of phytosterols per every 200 grams of seeds. The specific type of phytosterol they supply is called beta-sitosterol, which is tied to improved prostate health as well as better arterial function.
2. Protect Heart Health
Research shows that lignans help improve lipid profiles and can normalize cholesterol and blood pressure. Lignans help naturally lower cholesterol in a few ways — they can lower both serum blood and liver cholesterol levels. Researchers sometimes refer to sesame seed phytochemicals as “hypocholesterolemic agents” for this reason.
Fifty grams of sesame seed powder taken daily over five weeks by healthy adults has shown positive effects on total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, LDL-to-HDL cholesterol ratios and antioxidant status.
3. Improve Blood Pressure
Sesame oil is considered a strong antihypertensive since it can help normalize blood pressure levels. One 2006 study published in The Yale Journal of Biological Medicine investigated the effects of hypertensive adults supplementing with sesame oil daily for 45 days and found that sesame can be a great way to naturally lower blood pressure.
After tracking various health markers of 32 hypertensive patients aged 35 to 60 years who were supplied sesame oil (Idhayam gingelly oil) to use it as the only edible oil for 45 days, the researchers found that sesame oil helped significantly lower blood pressure, decrease lipid peroxidation and increase antioxidant status in the majority of patients.
4. Balance Hormones
Research suggests there’s potential for sesame to also positively affect sex hormone production due to better fatty-acid metabolism, especially in post-menopausal women.
In a 2009 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, sesame ingestion had positive effects on blood lipids and antioxidant status in adult women that positively impacted sex hormones. Sesamin, a sesame lignan, was shown to be converted by intestinal microflora to enterolactone, a phytoestrogen compound with estrogen-like activity. Additionally, sesamin showed enterometabolite activity, similar to those found in flaxseed lignans, which are also phytoestrogens.
After investigating the effects of 50 grams of sesame seed powder taken daily on blood sex hormones, lipids and levels of oxidation in 26 postmenopausal women over the course of a five-week period, the group receiving sesame experienced improvements in serum sex hormone binding and production, as well as reductions in total cholesterol levels and improved antioxidant status.
Because they’re loaded with important nutrients, protein and fats, sesame seeds are also a superfood for a healthy pregnancy.
5. Fight Cancer
Whole sesame seeds are a rich source of mammalian lignan precursors, similar to whole flaxseeds. The mammalian lignans called enterolactone and enterodiol are produced by the microflora in the colon, and recent research suggests they have potential anticancer effects, especially in regard to preventing colon and breast cancers.
A 2005 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 and can help protect from oxidation and colon cancer development.
Another 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition also found that dietary lignans may act like a natural cancer treatment and reduce breast cancer risk by modifying tumor characteristics. Lignan intakes were inversely associated with risk of estrogen receptor (ER) 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.
6. Help Burn Fat
Fats signal our brain to produce hormones that make us feel satisfied so we stay full for longer between meals. Essentially, various healthy fats turn on your fat-burning switch by reducing ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
Certain phytochemicals found in sesame seeds that are part of the lignan family are also known to be beneficial to your metabolism and body’s fat-burning abilities. Studies done involving animals show that sesame seeds might act like an ultimate fat-burning food because lignans enhance important liver mechanisms. They can increase burning fat by improving the activity of several liver enzymes that actually work to break down fatty acids.
This is one reason why several fat-burning or bodybuilding supplements are available on the market today that contain active ingredients from sesame seeds. However, of course it’s always better to obtain benefits from the real whole food and skip the processed and potentially dangerous pills!
7. Boost Nutrient Absorption
Sesame seeds’ lignans act as compounds important for antioxidant activity since they help the absorption of vitamin E and other phytochemicals. In general, you need fatty acids to absorb fat-soluble nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin D and many types of antioxidants. 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.
8. Good Source of Vitamins and Minerals Like Iron, Fiber and Magnesium
Sesame seeds are a good source of many different minerals, fiber and even protein. A serving of two tablespoons of whole sesame seeds contain a substantial amount of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese. This same size serving also has about two grams of dietary fiber and three to four grams of protein, which given the small serving size is more protein than many other protein foods like nuts and seeds contain.
The iron found in sesame can help prevent iron deficiency tied to anemia and low energy. And although copper deficiency isn’t as common, sesame seeds provide a good dose of copper needed to maintain nerve, bone and metabolic health.
Sesame also contains a good deal of calcium, however 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 good percentage of the calcium from actually being absorbed and used in the body. Essentially, the calcium is bound to oxalic acid, making it less bioavailable and beneficial.
Hulling sesame seeds, which means removing their outer skin, can help remove a good portion of the oxalic acid, but unfortunately at the same time, this process 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 this way (unhulled, whole and toasted) can help improve assimilation of calcium and other nutrients.
It’s believed that toasting the seeds at high temperatures might remove most of the oxalates, although this process raises other concerns for damaging the delicate oils within the seeds. There seems to be pros and cons of eating sesame seeds in different ways, so essentially choose the kind that you like best.
Sesame Seeds History and Interesting Facts
There are believed to be thousands of different sesame seed plants 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.
How to Buy and Use Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds come in a number of different sizes and colors, including white, golden brown, black, yellow and beige varieties. Black sesame seeds (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 (called decorticated). After harvesting, the seeds are usually cleaned and hulled. An interesting fact is that even though a batch of sesame seeds with consistent appearance (for example all white) 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 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. Tahini is a great alternative to peanut butter — a metabolism death food — or even other nut butters if you have an intolerance to nuts. Tahini is usually made from whole roasted 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, some curries and dressings.
When using whole sesame seeds at home, you can greatly enhance the nutty flavor of sesame seeds by toasting them in a dry skillet over low to medium heat until they’re golden brown and fragrant. The whole toasting process takes just a few minutes so be careful! Watch them artfully to make sure they don’t burn, turn black or give off a bad smell, which means they’ve turned rancid.
Healthy Sesame Seed Recipes
Probably the most popular ways to use sesame seeds are in stir-fries or ground into tahini used in hummus and other Middle Eastern-inspired appetizers. Hummus is a simple and healthy combination of ingredients that you can easily make at home using ground chickpeas, garlic and tahini. Babaganoush has a base of roasted eggplant and is seasoned with tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt.
Ty adding sesame seed oil to salad dressings, coleslaw and veggie side dishes, marinated chicken or proteins, and, of course, your favorite stir-fries. You can also add whole sesame seeds to homemade gluten-free breads, bagels, hamburger buns or crackers. Or get some inspiration from India, Greece, Sicily and France, where sesame seeds are used in cakes and deserts, such as combining them with honey to make sesame sticks or blending them into nut butter to make tasty clusters similar to peanut brittle.
Sesame Salmon Stir-Fry Recipe
This salmon stir-fry recipe is a favorite! It’s full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fibrous vegetables, and its flavor is unmatched.
Total Time: 20 minutes
- ¼ cup coconut aminos
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup peppers, chopped
- 1 pound wild-caught alaskan salmon, skinned and cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 ½ cups mushrooms, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 head broccoli, chopped and blanched
- 1 tablespoon whole sesame seeds
- In a large skillet over medium heat, add the coconut aminos, vinegar, sesame oil, peppers and onions. Cook onions and peppers until translucent.
- Add salmon to pan, and coat salmon with mixture. Add ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, mushrooms and broccoli.
- Continue to cook until salmon is cooked through, and then serve.
Interactions and Side Effects of Sesame Seeds
Like other nuts and foods, sesame can trigger allergic reactions in some people. Some research shows that sesame seed food allergies 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. 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 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.
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