Latin name: Helianthus annuus
Other names: helianthus, girasole
Uses: Nut/seed, oil
Sunflowers are iconic symbols of hope and happiness, with their yellow, orange, red or even purple petals turning to face the sun. But they should really also be symbols of good health, with seeds that are packed with benefits. Sunflower seeds form after their flowers mature, and there are two types of edible sunflower varieties — one grown for oil, and the other for snackable seeds. Oil seeds have solid black shells, while edible seeds have black-and-white striped shells that must be removed before the seed is eaten. One sunflower head may yield up to 2,000 seeds.
Why is it healthy?
Sunflower oil is high in vitamin E, an important antioxidant and key player for optimal immune function. It is also a source of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that we cannot make ourselves. Sunflower seeds may be beneficial for chronic inflammatory conditions, bacterial and fungal infections, cardiovascular diseases, skin diseases, and even some cancers.
What does it taste like?
Sunflower seeds have a gently nutty taste and a firm texture that softens quickly when chewed. Roasting enhances their flavor.
Where does it grow?
Sunflowers are grown worldwide but are believed to have originated in Mesoamerica; seeds have been excavated in ruins dating to 2100 BCE in Mexico. They were introduced in the early 16th century to Europe, from where they made their way to oilseed cultivators in Russia.
How do I prepare it and what should I pair it with?
The most common way of eating sunflower seeds is to roast them — with or without salt or other seasonings. They can be enjoyed as is, or used to enhance salads or desserts like brownies. Dehulled kernels are sold raw or roasted, and sometimes added to bread and other baked goods. Sunflower seeds can also be used to make a seed butter (just like peanut butter), which has significantly less saturated fat than other seed butters.
Tsar Peter the Great was so taken by sunflowers growing in the Netherlands that he brought some back to Russia. The crop became popular when the Russian Orthodox Church determined that sunflower seed oil was not forbidden during Lent, unlike other oils banned during this season.