New innovative food products feature super-nutritious sunflower seeds.

By Dario Bard

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Packing two times more protein than walnuts and pecans. Delivering six times more vitamin E than peanuts. And able to stop disease cold in its tracks. Look! Up on the health food shelves! It’s one of the world’s undisputed superfoods! It’s sunflower seeds!

Scorned by some as a marketing ploy, the term superfood was originally used to refer to foods of high nutritional value that provide numerous health benefits without negative health impacts. Sunflower seeds, in this regard, constitute a superfood in the truest and purest sense of the word. Its credentials include:

  • Vitamin E: An antioxidant that protects cell membranes. Research points to healthy cell membranes as an important factor in delaying the onset of a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Vitamin E also slows the effects of aging and controls the symptoms of asthma and arthritis, as well as the risk of colon cancer, diabetes and atherosclerosis. According to the USDA, sunflower seeds represent the best whole food source of Vitamin E; a single ounce of oil-roasted sunflower seeds provide 76% of the recommended dietary allowance.

  • Micronutrients: Sunflower seeds are full of micronutrients. For instance, 100g contains 90% of the daily value of cooper, which helps carry oxygen to the cells to produce energy. The same sized serving provides 30% of the daily value of zinc, which keeps the immune system strong, and iron, which helps transport oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Sunflower seeds also include magnesium, which may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Selenium, another micronutrient, works with vitamin E to prevent heart disease.

  • Phytochemicals: Sunflower seeds include several of these naturally occurring chemical compounds, including betaine (which reduces the risk of heart disease); phenolic acid (an anticarcinogen); choline (which promotes memory and improves cognitive functions); arginine (which benefits heart health); and lignans (which reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and lowers LDL cholesterol). Together, these phytochemicals may inhibit the growth of cancer cells and help fight colon, prostate and breast cancer.

  • Folate: Improves blood circulation and nerve function, and protects against congenital malformations. Folate helps develop the DNA and RNA in cells, making it vital to the production of new red blood cells. It is especially important for pregnant women and newborns.

In addition to these health attributes, sunflower seeds are high in protein (24 grams of protein in every 100 grams of sunflower seeds) and fiber (one gram per half ounce serving), as well as in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (90% of total fat content), which may benefit cardiovascular health. Research indicates that diets with unsaturated fats may be preferable to non-fat diets because unsaturated fats lower LDL (bad) cholesterol while maintaining HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

With U.S. domestic consumption of confection sunflower seeds up 39% over the last decade, it’s not surprising that new sunflower-based food products are increasingly popping up on store shelves. Sunflower butter, perhaps one of the first innovations in this regard, was originally produced as a snack alternative for children who couldn’t consume peanut butter due to tree nut allergies (sunflower seeds, on the other hand, are practically allergen free). Sunflower seeds and peanuts have similar oil, protein and carbohydrate content, but peanuts lack the micronutrients of sunflower.

Building on the sunflower butter experience, the National Sunflower Association partnered with the Northern Crops Institute and North Dakota State University to find other food applications for sunflower seeds. A 2011 study conducted by these two institutions evaluated consumer acceptance of foods made with sunflower butter versus peanut butter. Sunflower cookies and biscotti were as well received as their peanut butter counterparts, but sunflower ice cream and frosting did not perform as well, with study participants reporting the flavor was too strong.

Thunyaporn Jeradechachai, a crop quality specialist at the Northern Crops Institute, led that study. She hasn’t given up on sunflower butter ice cream, though. “I’m hoping it will be in the market soon,” she says.

When it does hit the shelves, it will be joining a wide-range of sunflower seed-based products, including tortilla chips, crackers, cookies, cereals and cakes that are being sold in several countries, including Spain, Brazil, China, Sweden and Colombia, as well as in the U.S. There is also a sunflower butter version of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup produced by Boulder, CO-based Seth Ellis Chocolatier, LLC called Sun Cups.

Jeradechachai has also experimented with using sunflower seeds in granola bars to give them a nut-like taste and feel.

“It’s a very versatile product,” she says.