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Seeds seem to be everywhere these days, from chia seed pudding to hemp seed muffins to all-seed granolas. But why are seeds having this moment in the spotlight? And what’s special about seeds besides the fact that they are baby plants? In this article we’ll explore some of the trendiest seeds, their nutritional value, and how you can use them in your recipes.
What is a seed, anyway?
A seed is a plant embryo, surrounded by endosperm (nutrition for the little plant) and a seed coat for protection. A surprising number of the things we eat are seeds: nuts, legumes, beans, peas, coffee, nutmeg, rice, wheat, corn, oats and barley, among many others. We’ll focus on five seeds that are trending right now: pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, flax and chia.
Why are seeds having a moment?
The recent popularity of seeds can be tied to several larger food trends:
1. Dairy-free milk alternatives – Alternative “milks” in the U.S. started in the 1950s with soy milk and then expanded into almond milk. Now alterative milks are made from a variety of nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. Hemp and flax milks in particular are helping raise the profile of seeds as a versatile food.
2. More plant-based eating – According to the Good Food Institute, sales of plant-based foods grew twice as fast in 2020 as overall food sales.
3. The rise of hemp production – Hemp has been booming in uses as varied as fibers for clothing and building materials, oil extracts for CBD and, of course, seeds for food.
What is nutritionally interesting about seeds?
Seeds are nutritionally dense. Ager all, that tiny package has to sustain the growth of the new plant until it is able to make its own food from the sun and soil. Seeds are high in protein, good fats and fiber. Plus seeds are high in nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Each of our featured seeds has a special superpower:
• Pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, which boosts immunity.
• Sunflower seeds are packed with B and E vitamins and selenium, an antioxidant.
• Hemp seeds are rich in vitamin E, potassium, and heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
• Flax seed is high in lignan, which is an antioxidant that helps keep you healthy.
• Chia seeds are high in alpha-linolenic acid, which is good for your heart.
Cooking with seeds
Growing up, the seeds my mom cooked with were pretty basic: mostly sesame. She also used some seeds for seasoning, such as poppy, caraway and fennel. But the seeds in today’s recipes were not in my mom’s cookbooks.
Even though my mom didn’t use these seeds in her cooking, their use as food is ancient. Here is a little history on each of our featured seeds and some pointers on how to easily incorporate them into your cooking routine:
Pumpkin seeds – Pumpkin seeds have been used for food in the Americas for thousands of years, dating to 4,000 to 10,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. Pumpkins were cultivated in the area thousands of years before corn and beans.
Treat toasted crushed pumpkin seeds as a coating for fish or roast meat, or use as a garnish for soups and salads. Pumpkin seeds add a nice bit of crunch to tacos. Grind toasted pumpkin seeds in a food processor with a little oil, honey and salt to make smooth pumpkin nut butter.
Sunflower seeds – Sunflowers were domesticated as a single-headed crop plant by Native Americans at least 3,000 years ago, and they bred the plants for a variety of seed colors. Native Americans pounded the seeds into meal to use in cooking, and also crushed the seeds to extract the rich oil.
Sprinkle raw or toasted sunflower seeds onto your salad or add to granola. Substitute sunflower seeds for pine nuts for a creamy variant on traditional pesto. Toss sunflower seeds and garlic with roasted root vegetables for a healthful and tasty side dish.
Hemp seeds – Hemp seeds are as ancient a food as pumpkin seeds, dating back to Mesopotamia, about 8,000 years ago. The fibrous stalks were used for rope, fabric, and in making pottery. Hemp spread around the globe and was farmed extensively in Lancaster in the 1700s and 1800s, hence the Hempfield School District’s name.
When raw, hemp seeds are a crispy addition to cereal and yogurt. Substitute hemp seeds for bulgur wheat in tabbouli for a lightly nutty variation. Add hemp seeds into your favorite vegetarian burger recipe to give it extra nutrition.
Flax seeds – Flax originated about 5,000 years ago in an area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to India. In Egypt, the cloth used to wrap mummies was made from flax, and today flax is still used to make linen fabric. Flax seeds were pressed to make linseed oil, which can be food-grade or industrial-grade. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate flax seeds, including as a sweet treat mixed with honey.
Flax seeds are not digestible whole, so they must be ground or chopped before using. You can also buy flax seed meal or oil, ready to use. Flax seed meal is easy to add to almost any baked good, particularly pancakes and muffins. Another way to add flax seed to your diet is to mix chopped flax seeds with oats when making hot oatmeal.
Chia seeds – Chia seeds were a staple of the Mayan and Aztec diets about 3,500 years ago. The Mayan word for chia is “chiabaan” which means “strengthening”. A little lightweight pouch of chia seed could be carried by warriors for long distances and provided enough nutrition to keep up their strength for days on end.
If flax seeds are hard-to-digest tough guys, chia seeds are softies. Just mix chia seeds with the liquid of your choice and they plump up to become soft and gelatinous. This makes chia seeds a perfect candidate for puddings, smoothies, and breakfast bowls.
Easy chia breakfast pudding:
Mix in a bowl:
½ cup chia seeds
2 cups milk of your choice (preferably unsweetened)
2 tablespoons sweetener, such as honey, maple syrup, or agave
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Stir well, cover bowl, and put in the fridge overnight. In the morning top with fresh or dried fruit and a sprinkling of toasted hemp or pumpkin seed for crunch. Serves six.