Turns out all that time you spent cracking (and spitting out) sunflower seeds was actually time well spent. These tasty snacking seeds are an incredibly nutrient-rich food that delivers some impressive health benefits. That’s because sunflower seeds contain antioxidants, flavonols, fiber, plant-based protein, heart-healthy fatty acids and more. They’re also allergy-friendly, making them “a great alternative to peanuts and other tree nuts if you have a food allergy,” says Registered Dietitian Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, Deputy Nutrition Director for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Here’s everything you need to know about the tiny seeds, including their health benefits and ways to use them.
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What are sunflower seeds?
The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) originated in North America and is a very tough plant that can grow in almost any kind of soil. It thrives in locations with full sun exposure. Once a sunflower blooms, the seeds typically need about another month before they can be harvested. “Sunflower seeds are the fruit that comes from a sunflower. The seeds grow in the plant’s flower head and are harvested from there,” says Liana Werner-Gray, Natural Food Chef and best-selling author. “One sunflower can contain hundreds of these seeds, and the seeds themselves can be over 12 inches in diameter.”
You’ll be able to find sunflower seeds at most supermarkets and may notice that some come as the whole seed whereas others only have the kernels. According to the National Sunflower Association, a sunflower kernel is the meat inside of the actual sunflower seed. “If you purchase sunflower kernels, that means that the manufacturer has removed the hull and the kernel can be eaten as is, whether raw or roasted,” Sassos says. But whole sunflower seeds have the meat of the seed intact and inside the shell. You can roast and season them, then eat them by cracking the shell with your teeth, disposing of the hull and eating the kernel within the seed.
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Sunflower Seed Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 oz. unsalted roasted sunflower seed kernels
- Calories: 165
- Total fat: 14 g
- Saturated fat: 2 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 0 mg
- Total carb: 7 g
- Fiber: 3 g
- Protein: 5.5 g
- Iron: 1.08 mg (6% DV)
- Magnesium: 36.6 mg (9% DV)
- Phosphorus: 329 mg (26% DV)
- Potassium: 241 mg (5% DV)
- Zinc: 1.5 mg (14% DV)
- Copper: 0.519 mg (58% DV)
- Manganese: 0.598 mg (26% DV)
- Selenium: 22.5 µg (41% DV)
- Folate: 67.2 µg (17% DV)
- Vitamin E: 7.4 mg (50% DV)
Sunflower Seed Health Benefits
Not only do sunflower seeds offer a great nutty flavor and crunchy texture, but they have a variety of health benefits, including:
May help your eyes
“Sunflower seeds are one of the richest dietary sources of vitamin E and contain about half a day’s worth of your needs in just one ounce,” Sassos says. “Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble antioxidant that plays a role in eye health and combatting inflammation.” Studies show that vitamin E may support good vision by warding off eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration.
May promote a healthy heart
“Sunflower seeds aren’t just delicious, they’re also especially rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids,” says Sassos. These “good” fats are heart-friendly because they can help lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, reducing your risk of heart attack or stroke. Just look for options that are unsalted or lightly salted for the most heart-healthy pick. The antioxidants in sunflower seeds can also help combat inflammation and other chronic diseases.
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May support a healthy immune system
A strong immune system is key to maintaining good overall health, and sunflower seeds are a great immune supporter, thanks to their vitamin E content. They also contain a bit of zinc and selenium which can also help support a healthy immune system. Add them to a salad, trail mix or sprinkle over roasted veggies for a crunchy, protein-filled bite. Better yet, serve them alongside vitamin C-rich foods for the ultimate immune-boosting combination.
May promote good digestion
The fiber in sunflower seeds can help keep things regular and prevent constipation. But if you’re not used to eating fiber-rich foods, you may want to start slow and gradually increase the serving size over time. Staying hydrated is also key when incorporating more fiber-rich foods into your diet to help the fiber properly absorb in your stomach and pass through your system.
May assist in weight management
Getting plenty of fiber and protein is an important step in maintaining a healthy weight, and sunflower seeds are packed with both. How do they help? Both nutrients help keep you full for longer, and fiber also promotes good digestion and regulates blood sugar levels.
Potential Downsides of Sunflower Seeds
If you’re eating the whole sunflower seed and not sunflower kernels, you’ll want to be sure that you discard the hull. Since the hulls are primarily composed of fiber, eating too much of them can cause digestive upset and if not chewed properly the sharp pieces of the shell could damage the digestive lining and more.
Although sunflower seeds and sunflower seed butter are typically considered allergen-friendly alternatives to other nuts and seeds, if you have an allergy to sunflower seeds you should avoid these products.
How to Eat Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds make for a great nutrient-dense snack. You can eat the kernels straight from the bag but actual whole sunflower seeds with the hull can be a bit more labor-intensive. To eat the whole seed, you’ll want to crack the outer shell between your teeth and spit out the shell before chewing the seed.
Werner-Gray recommends sprinkling sunflower seed kernels on salads, into your yogurt or oatmeal, or adding them to your favorite trail mix. You can also enjoy sunflower seeds in seed butter form. Sunflower seed butter offers a peanut-free alternative that is typically a school-safe option. Sunflower seed butter is perfect on a piece of toast, with an apple or as a swap for nut butter in practically any recipe, according to Werner-Gray. Here are more ways to use sunflower seed and sunflower seed butter:
- Add to oatmeal
- Sprinkle on yogurt parfaits
- Mix into breads and baked goods
- Sprinkle on top of baked goods
- Add to homemade granola and granola bars
- Swap out pine nuts for sunflower seeds in pesto
- Incorporate in stir-frys
- Spread sunflower seed butter on a banana
- Make a sandwich with sunflower seed butter in place of peanut butter
Sunflower seeds are little nutrition powerhouses that offer a variety of health benefits. They are incredibly versatile and can be eaten on their own as a snack or incorporated into baked goods and even savory dishes. They provide an allergen-friendly alternative to peanut butter and are packed with a variety of vitamins and minerals. Look for unsalted or lightly salted options and minimal ingredients if purchasing a sunflower seed butter.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she has written research-backed health content for Prevention, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day since 2017. She has more than 13 years of reporting and editing experience and previously worked as research chief at Reader’s Digest, where she was responsible for the website’s health vertical as well as editing health content for the print magazine. She has also written for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post and more.
Nutrition Lab Deputy Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.