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Sunflower Power

This tiny seed-and its various butters, flours, and oils-boasts a host of health benefits

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For folks with peanut allergies-or any peanut butter lover who wants to mix things up a little-sunflower seed butter is an option worth tasting. On its own or blended with omega-3 rich flaxseeds, it’s a delicious way to safely enjoy nut butter. It can be substituted in nearly any peanut butter snack, as well as in place of a good ol’ PB&J in a kid’s lunch box. And for those with wheat allergies, sunflower seed flours and milks offer a great alternative.

Sunflower seeds are high in polyunsaturated oil, an omega-6 fat which, when consumed in a 2:1 or 1:1 balance with omega-3 fat, helps lower cholesterol. In fact, a recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that a diet that includes plant sterols (such as those found in sunflower seeds), fiber, nuts, and soy protein helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels better than simply cutting back on saturated fat.

Sunflower seed products are also excellent sources of other nutrients: Vitamin E supports brain function, keeps arteries healthy, and reduces risk of heart attack. Magnesium regulates blood pressure and muscle and nerve function, aids bone health, and boosts immunity. Folate helps build and protect DNA and keeps homocysteine levels in check. Tryptophan supports sleep and mood. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) promotes healthy skin, mood, and energy. Phosphorus regulates nutrient use and boosts energy. Manganese and copper fight free radicals. And selenium helps block oxidative damage.

Sunflower seeds also contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which together fight diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Plus, they feature a wide array of amino acids.

Enjoying these health benefits is simple. Sunflower oil is great for cooking and is excellent in salad dressings. Sunflower flour offers a fantastic gluten-free way to bake. You can also simply eat the seeds straight out of the bag or add them to some of your favorites. For instance, a handful (quarter cup) of seeds on your salad or oatmeal adds nearly 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein to your meal.

A word of caution: The sunflower seed oil you find in mainstream supermarkets is usually a refined product. Refined oils undergo heat processing, which damages the oil’s structure, causes unhealthy trans fats to form, and robs the oil of important nutrients including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and lignans-both potent cancer fighters. Unrefined sunflower seed products, such as many found in health food stores, leave the seed’s nutrients intact, retaining the health benefits.

Sunflower Seed Crusted Tilapia with Sunflower Butter Tahini
serves 8

Recipe by Andi Phillips

½ cup sunflower seed butter

6 Tbs. fresh squeezed lemon juice

2 cloves garlic

½ cup packed parsley leaves

½ cup packed cilantro leaves

¼ cup packed mint leaves

½ tsp. salt, plus extra to taste

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. granulated onion

½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. ground coriander

1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

2 eggs

2 Tbs. milk

4 cups roasted sunflower seed kernels

4 6-oz. tilapia fillets

  1. To Make Tahini: Combine sunflower seed butter, lemon juice, garlic, parsley, cilantro, and mint in food processor. Process on high until contents form smooth paste. Salt to taste.
  2. To Make Fish: Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray foil-lined baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Combine flour, onion, cumin, coriander, ½ tsp. salt, and cayenne in shallow dish. In second dish, whisk together eggs and milk. Place sunflower kernels in third dish.
  3. Dredge tilapia fillet in flour, dip in egg mixture, and press into sunflower seed kernels. Transfer to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining fillets.
  4. Cover baking sheet loosely with foil, and refrigerate at least 15 minutes. Bake fish 20 minutes. Arrange fillets on serving plate, and top with tahini.

Storage Tips
All oils are sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen. Store sunflower seeds, oil, or butter in your refrigerator or in a cool, dry place. (Check product labels for storage recommendations.) Unrefined sunflower seed oil that is properly stored may last up to 6 months before turning rancid