Herbs to Know: Sunflowers

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The plant is native to the United States, so its seeds can rightly be called an all-American snack.
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By season’s end, the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) can stand 12 feet tall.
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Sunflowers are so cheerful. They stand tall, and their bright yellow faces turn to follow the sun across the sky. This time of year they’re a familiar sight in North America, where they grow in gardens and fields and along roadsides. As the seedheads ripen in late summer, birds seek them out and have picnics on them, picking out the nutritious, oil-laden kernels.

The birds are right to value sunflower seeds as snack food–sunflowers carry health benefits that go beyond the smiles they bring to our faces when we see them. Research and nutritional analyses show that sunflower seeds are loaded with protein, they’re an energy food, and they’re a rich source of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

These plants also have history on their side. For 3,000 years, many Native American tribes cultivated them as a staple of their diets. The ancient Aztecs worshiped them, traditional herbalists used them medicinally and, today, they’re a major food crop in the United States. Sunflowers are native to this continent, so they can rightly be called an all-American snack.

Seed appeal

The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant in the daisy family. It has coarse, hairy leaves, and it looks rough as it rapidly grows in early summer. By the end of the season, some varieties can tower 10 to 12 feet high.

Atop this gawky stalk is the single brilliantly colored ray flower that delivers its precious cargo of seeds. That flower is a lesson in efficient packing, with up to 2,000 zebra-striped seeds crammed tightly together in concentric circles within the flower head. In its form and growth habits, the sunflower offers comedy, drama, and geometry in addition to its other attributes.

It’s simple to grow. If you have the space, try it and you may end up with your own harvest of seeds if you beat the birds to it. See the box on page 63 for growing instructions. If you’re not a gardener, sunflower seeds for eating are sold in every convenience store and grocery, right next to the potato chips and pretzels.

The seed, where the sunflower packs its nutrition, is dried, soaked in saltwater, then roasted. The tiny kernels are chewy, nutty, and mild tasting, delicious by themselves. Some professional athletes can be seen chomping away on handfuls of sunflower seeds, spitting out the hulls as they go. Shelled seeds are easy to toss into ­salads and sandwiches, incorporate into breads and pastries, sprinkle on baked potatoes or hot cereal, and use in a variety of vegetarian dishes. They can be ground in a coffee mill and added to flour for pancakes or pie crusts, to which they lend a distinctive nutty flavor. The seed is also the source of a premium oil, valued by cooks for its light color, mild flavor, relatively low level of saturated fats, and its ability to withstand cooking at high temperatures.

Why eat them?

For a peek inside that seed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional database on edible plants offers a string of numbers that hold the secret of its goodness. Below are some of sunflower seeds’ components and a description of their possible benefits; the nutritional figures are based on the edible portion of 1 cup of seeds in their hulls, or 46 g of kernels–perhaps what the average person would consume, at least on a heavy snacking day.

Vitamin E. Sunflower seeds are a good source of this powerful antioxidant, which is believed to prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease and slow the effects of aging, among other benefits. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E is 8 to 10 mg; 46 g of sunflower seeds delivers 23 mg.

B-Complex Vitamins. Sunflowers offer a good supply of B vitamins, which help metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Specifically, sunflowers contain B6, folate, and pantothenic acid. Vitamin B6 is vital for the maintenance of almost all body functions and can affect both physical and mental health. The cup of sunflower seeds in their hulls has 0.35 mg of B6, compared to the RDA of 1.6 to 2 mg.

Folate, or folic acid, is involved in the metabolism of protein, the formation of red blood cells, and the transmission of nerve impulses, among other activities, and can affect mood, sleep, appetite, and the immune system. The RDA for folic acid is 180 to 200 mcg, more for pregnant and nursing women; sunflower seeds have 105 mcg.

The body uses pantothenic acid in its metabolism and in the synthesis of hormones and blood. It’s also known as the anti-stress vitamin. The level recommended by the National Research Council is 4 to 7 mg; sunflower seeds have 3 mg.

Minerals. The minerals found in substantial quantities in sunflower seeds include phosphorus, iron, and selenium. Phosphorus is important in maintaining healthy bones and teeth and sustaining energy levels, and is vital to the growth and maintenance of all body tissue. The RDA for phosphorus is 800 mg; you can get 324 mg from that cup of sunflower seeds in their shells.

The body uses iron to make red blood cells, produce energy, maintain the immune system, and other functions. The RDA is 10 mg for adults, half again as much for women of childbearing age; sunflower seeds deliver 3 mg.

Sunflower seeds ­contain vitamins E and B, and substantial quantities of ­phosphorous, iron, and selenium.

The body needs selenium, a trace mineral, to activate an antioxidant enzyme that is credited with a wide variety of effects, including lowering the risk of heart disease and relieving anxiety and depression. The RDA is 55 to 70 mcg; sunflower seeds have 27 mcg.

Amino acids. These are the building blocks that make up the proteins in every cell in the body. Sunflowers are an excellent source of two amino acids in particular, phenylalanine and arginine. In fact, sunflower seeds are one of the best sources of phenylalanine, a chemical that plays a role in the formation of neurotransmitters and is involved in controlling pain. Jim Duke, a longtime medicinal-plant researcher for the USDA and a leading authority on healing herbs, states it de­finitively in his book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997): “If I were in pain, I’d eat a handful of sunflower seeds . . . and use ground seeds in a poultice on painful areas.”

Finally, sunflower seeds are the richest known source of the vital amino acid arginine, which is helpful in treating angina, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke, and is also related to sexual function in men. Writing with his colleague C. Leigh Broadhurst in the September/October 1998 Herbs for Health, Duke says that the tremendous hype over the impotence drug Viagra piqued his interest in an herbal alternative, which he found in sunflower seeds because of their high level of arginine. Arginine increases the body’s nitric oxide levels. Sexual excitement signals pelvic nerves to call up nitric oxide, which helps blood vessels expand and the penis to become engorged to create an erection.

Naturopaths who recommend arginine to men with low sperm counts advise 4 g of arginine a day. Our cup of sunflower seeds contains about 2 g; Duke cautions that sunflower seeds must be completely digested and the protein broken down before the body can use the arginine.

Gentlemen, did I get your attention? Ladies, do you know what snack to serve your gentlemen callers?

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