I have distinct memories from my childhood of eating sunflower seeds from the shell. I now realize that we most likely always had them around because my parents had parrots. There was Charlie, the Double Yellow Headed Amazon, who would dance whenever you whistled Yankee Doodle. Then there was Pepper, a nasty African Grey who was jealous of me. For real, no joke. She loved my Dad but she would attack the cage whenever I walked by. She would also mouth off and say, “Yoouu be quiet” to anyone who tried to keep her from screeching. But I digress. My point here is about sunflower seeds, not the odd pet choices my family had in the seventies- although I would like to point out that there was even a raccoon at one point. OK, done.
My parents kept sunflower seeds around as treats for the birds and for good reason. Sunflower seeds are powerhouses of nutrition. They pack an impressive punch of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants into their little nutty flavored kernels. Let’s check some out some of the sunflower’s superstahs:
· Vitamin E – The sunflower is the best whole food source of vitamin E…and I’m sure you’ve heard that whole foods are the most desirable way to receive our nutrients. Vitamin E is actually a family of fat soluble vitamins and each member has a specific purpose. Supplements in pill form often contain only one kind of Vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol, which limits the effectiveness of them. I’m not knocking supplements, but whole foods that deliver high levels of vitamins and minerals most often have the complimentary elements needed for your body to process everything optimally. (Think of how much more your body gets from eating an orange vs. taking a vitamin C pill.) You can get a little over 90% of your body’s vitamin E daily requirement by munching on a quarter cup of tasty sunflower seeds. Doing this provides Vitamin E that could potentially enhance your immune system as well as help your cells transfer information more effectively. Vitamin E is known to have strong anti-inflammatory properties and it’s a potent antioxidant. It works synergistically with another, more difficult to obtain antioxidant, selenium, which is also found in sunflower seeds. (See what I mean about whole foods being more comprehensive?)
· Selenium – This is a trace mineral that acts as an antioxidant and is essential for good health. We don’t need a lot of it, but we need it and, like I just mentioned, it needs its cohort Vitamin E to achieve superstah status. It exists in nearly every cell in our bodies, but especially in the kidneys and liver. These organs help our bodies to eliminate toxins, so it totally makes sense that there is extra selenium in the cells of those organs; selenium’s primary job is to act as a defense against free radicals that can damage our DNA and cause cancer. One quarter cup of sunflower kernels provides about 30% of your daily selenium needs.
· Magnesium – When your nerves are feeling jangly, a dose of magnesium can be your best friend. I could, and most likely will, do a whole post on the wonders of magnesium, but here’s a quick low down. About half of the magnesium in your body is found in the cells of your organs and tissues. It is responsible for maintaining normal muscle and nerve function. It is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in your body such as keeping your heart rhythm steady, regulating blood sugar levels and promoting normal blood pressure. When you’re low in magnesium, these processes suffer and you feel lousy. The other half of the magnesium store in your body is found in the bones. So, obviously it’s an important mineral for bone health. Interesting fact: if you are deficient in magnesium, your body is not able to properly utilize calcium, another important factor in bone health, and this can cause your bones to suffer twofold. Bottom line: eating sunflower seeds will help your bones and help you relax.
As a kid, I liked to pop some seeds into my mouth so I could crack the shells just right between my teeth, expertly remove the kernel and ptooey! see how far I could spit the shell. But, I now buy my sunflower seeds hulled, boring, I know. It’s just so handy to have a container of them accessible to snack on or, my favorite, to throw into salads. They add a flavor and crunch that makes a salad seem more like a meal. You can also throw them in a pita pocket sandwich, toss them into a stir fry or even bake them into breads or muffins.
Fun Facts ‘bout Sunflowers
The sunflower is quite an amazing plant. Native to Central America, the sunflower is an example of Mother Nature at her finest; its big bright flower heads, gigantic leaves and human sized stalks are warm and inviting like a patch of sunshine is to a cat and it provides unmatched nutritional value to boot. I wonder if the first person to try a sunflower seed did so because they saw parrots eating them…hmm. The leaves and buds of young sunflowers exhibit heliotropism – a fancy word for the fact that they follow the sun from east to west over the course of the day. How cool is that?
The flower itself is a true work of art. It is actually a congregation of many small flowers, or florets, crowded tightly together. The outer florets grow the big yellow petals and the inner florets mature into the seeds we eat. The beauty of the flower head lies in the symmetry of the florets congregation. Here I’ll quote from Wikipedia because I can’t put it any more succinctly: “The florets within the sunflower’s cluster are arranged in a spiral pattern. Generally, each floret is oriented toward the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other; on a very large sunflower there could be 89 in one direction and 144 in the other. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head.” I just find that fascinating. Check it out in action here (I counted the spirals on this photo I took and it is the typical 34 and 55 spiral kind):
Now, you tell me that that isn’t some kind of crazy natural magic. What the? I totally have a newfound respect for these flowers…and their tasty seeds.