Sunflower Seeds – Description, Health Benefits, How to Cook and Eat

Fresh sunflower seedsSunflower seed is produced by Helianthus annuus, an annual plant belonging to the family Asteraceae. The sunflower produces a large flower head in which the seeds are developed. The flower head can reach a size if 30 centimeters in diameter, but many sunflower types form smaller flower heads. The most common sunflower type has a gray striped sunflower seed and the shell is quite hard. The Mammoth Russian is one of the largest sunflower plants and can grow up to 12 feet tall. It produces a well tasting striped sunflower seed with a thin shell. In bird food mixes, you will typically find black varieties of sunflower seed since they offer the birds more energy by having higher oil content.

The sunflower will display a behavior called heliotropism where the flower head always turn to face the sun. Francisco Pizarro, the European explorer, writes about how the Inca population views the round and yellow sunflower as a symbol for the God of the Sun. Helianthus, the first part of the Latin name for sunflower, is derived from the Greek words “helios”, which means sun, and “anthos”, which means flower.

The sunflower originates from the Americas and was domesticated as early as 1000 B.C. When the Europeans moved to the American continents they rapidly began to appreciate the tasty and nutritious sunflower seed. Today, sunflowers grow all over the world and the sunflower seed is uses for a wide variety of purposes.

Oil from sunflower seedsThey have a mild and nut-like taste that is ideal for salads, breads and muffins. By grinding the sunflower seeds, chefs produce a fine mix that is used as coating for chicken breasts, fish and other dishes. Sunflowers can also be enjoyed as a snack; raw or roasted. Some people like to soak the seeds in salty brine before eating them, while others perk them up even further using chili, garlic, lemon juice or other types of spicy additions. If you salt directly on the sunflower seed, some type of oil is usually necessary to make the salt stick to the seed.

Benefits for Health

A sunflower seed will contain around 40 percent fat, 24 percent protein and 20 percent carbohydrates. Just as most other seeds, the fat content is high, but the fat found in seeds are generally considered more healthy by the medical profession than animal fat. In addition to fat, protein and carbohydrates, the sunflower seed is also a rich source of magnesium, zinc and vitamin E.

Sunflower Oil

The sunflower seed is used to produce sunflower oil which is used for cooking and as carrier oil. Carrier oil is oil used to dilute absolutes and essential oils before they are used externally in aromatherapy. Carrier oils can also be mixed with herbs. Carrier oil is sometimes referred to as base oil, since it forms the base of the aromatic treatments. The sunflower seed can also be used to produce bio diesel and latex. There are currently several projects going on where scientists try to produce high-quality hypoallergenic rubber from the sunflower seed.

Bird Food

Birds and many other animals love to snack on the energy rich sunflower seed and sunflower seed is found in many types of commercially available animal food. The cake that is left when the seeds have been harvested is used as food for livestock.

What is Kernel?

When purchasing sunflower seed or reading about it, you will usually encounter the terms “seed” and “kernel”. Kernel is a seed where the hull has been removed. Kernels are sold raw as well as roasted, and can also be salted, coated with oil and/or spiced when sold as snack. The term seed is broader and is used for the entire seed, including the shell, as well as for kernels. “In-shell” refers to a seed where the shell is still left. In-shells can also be obtained raw as well as roasted, and they can have been soaked in salt, coated with oil and/or seasoned. Many people love the meditative sensation of slowly consuming an entire bag of in-shells one at the time by cracking the seed, eating the inner part and spitting out the shell.

Eating Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds for eating

The Native Americans were the first to discover the joy and benefits of eating sunflower seed, and the habit has since spread to many parts of the world. The Native Americans did not only eat the seeds as they were; they also ground them up into flour and used sunflower flour when baking cakes. Eating sunflower seeds were also a common way of treating certain health problems and various preparations of sunflower seeds have been used for cuts and bruises as well as snakebites. When Europeans began to settle in America, they soon developed a taste for eating sunflower seeds since the seeds tasted great and also provided valuable nutrition.

Interesting to know

Eating sunflower seeds is still very popular in the U.S. and other countries in North and South America. A lot of the sunflower seeds that are sold in U.S. have been roasted and salted while still in the shell. This type is sunflower seed is a very popular snack and can also be obtained in seasoned versions, such as Cajun seeds, ranch seeds, chilly seeds and sour cream & onion seeds. A majority of the snack seeds are sold during the summer when people enjoy eating sunflower seeds while participating in outdoor activities.

A Common Way to Eat

A common way of eating sunflower seed in the U.S. is to pop a handful of seeds into the mouth and placing them in the left cheek. A seed is then derived from the cheek, the shell is cracked open with the teeth and the internal part is devoured. The shell is subsequently disposed of, and the seed muncher goes on to the next seed. This way of eating sunflower seeds requires a lot of practice and is most popular among school kids, truckers and outdoor sport enthusiasts. Players as well as spectators like to snack on sunflower seeds in this fashion during baseball, football and basketball matches.

Some More History

The early Spanish explorers brought sunflower seeds back from the Americas and eating sunflower seeds soon grow fashionable in Spain. From Spain, it eventually spread to other parts of Europe, including Russia where several sunflower hybrids were developed. The first seeds that were brought to Europe by Spanish voyagers were planted as decoration and the seeds were considered rare and exotic curiosities rather than a part of an every day diet. The seeds were also frequently used to treat medical conditions. Today, roasted and salted sunflower seeds are a popular snack all over Spain, especially among women and young people. Spanish people tend to eat one seed at a time rather then engage in the “Eat & Spit” method that is popular in the U.S. In Europe, soccer is more popular than baseball, football and basketball and the Spanish people tend to eat a lot of sunflower seeds while watching or participating in soccer competitions.

Earlier, eating sunflower seeds was closely linked to cinemas in Spain, but today the association between outdoor activities and seed eating have grown more similar to the one found in the United States. During the Spanish soccer season, huge amounts of sunflower seeds are imported from the U.S.

From the and Americas and Europe, the practice of eating sunflower seed eventually spread all the way to China. Eating various nuts and seeds is a part of the Chinese food tradition and it was not hard for them to take the tasty little sunflower seed to their hearts. Today, you can purchase salted and roasted sunflower seeds as well as seasoned varieties in China. Eating sunflower seed is especially popular during Chinese New Year and other holidays. Sunflower seeds are cheaper than many other popular seeds and nuts in China and a lot of the sunflower seeds are grown locally. American sunflower seeds are also imported, since they fill another niche than the homegrown ones.

Sunflower Seed Brine

Sunflower seed brine

Sunflowers can be enjoyed au naturelle or mixed into a wide range of dishes, breads, candy and deserts. Using a sunflower seed brine to add some additional taste to the sunflower seed is very popular and also one of the easiest ways of adding a little extra sting to your sunflowers.


If you have collected the seeds directly from the sunflower, you begin by placing them unshelled in a large bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and gently stir the sunflower seeds until dirt and other undesirable things have been removed from the seeds. Heavy particles will fall to the bottom of the bowl and you can easily scoop up the floating sunflower seeds

If you plan to store your sunflower seeds after preparing them with the sunflower seed brine, you should ideally use roasted sunflower seeds since roasted seeds keep longer. You can easily roast your own sunflower seeds before you place them in the sunflower seed brine. Spread out your sunflowers in a single layer and place them in the oven for approximately 10 minutes at 275 degrees C. It is important only to roast one single layer at the time. Let the seeds cool of and store them in a cool and try place until your ready to prepare them with the sunflower seed brine.

Useful to Know

Dried sunflowerYou don’t have to roast your sunflower seeds before you use the sunflower seed brine; it’s just a way of adding to their life time. If you now that you will gulp down the delicious sunflower seeds in not time, roasting is optional. Some people do however like the slightly change of taste that can be obtained by roasting seeds before they are soaked in the sunflower seed brine. This sunflower seed brine can of course also be used for commercially prepared sunflower seeds; toasted as well as raw ones. If you do not roast the shells, you should ideally dry them before placing them in the sunflower seed brine.

Sunflower seed lovers all over the world all have their own recipes and techniques when it comes to preparing a sunflower seed brine. This is one example of a popular sunflower seed brine that will produce moderately salted kernels:

  1. Fill a bowl with 1 litre of water.
  2. Add 2 dl of salt and stir. You don’t need to get any special type of salt; regular table salt will do nicely.
  3. Add the sunflower seeds and let them soak overnight.
  4. Remove the seeds from the brine and let them dry.
  5. Store in a dry and cool place, or enjoy immediately!

If your sunflower seeds are shelled, the seed brine is not necessary since you can simply add salt directly to the seeds. The brine is a way for the salt to reach inside of the shells so that you can enjoy salted kernels once you have opened up the shell. If you want to salt shelled sunflower seeds, you can help the salt stick to the seed by coating the seed with some form of oil, e.g. non-stick cooking spray or sunflower oil.

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