Sesame seeds have been cultivated throughout history for more than two thousand years. A resilient crop capable of growing in dry, hot conditions as well as torrentially wet conditions, it is no wonder generations of people around the globe have continued to grow and enjoy this little yet mighty seed.
From a flowering plant, sesame seedpods pop open when finally mature and are harvested for use. The seeds can be sub-classified into black, white and yellow varieties. Sesame seeds have a natural ‘umami’ flavour, giving a unique savoury note to snacks, meat dishes, veggies and desserts.
Storing and Cooking Sesame Seeds
It’s important to store any food with a high oil content in a dark, air-tight container, possibly even in the fridge. This protects the sensitive polyunsaturated oils and minerals that are susceptible to degradation from heat, oxygen and light. Sesame seeds are special however, in that the oils contained within are bound with Vitamin E, which has a lipo-protective effect on fatty acid breakdown.
This means that cooking sesame seeds and sesame oil at a low to medium heat is ideal as the majority of nutrients are retained. It is certainly a balance when cooking with nuts and seeds and their respective oils and the gentler you treat them the better. Toasted sesame seeds have a beautiful earthy flavour, and because they are so small, they only require a quick toast in a dry pan to bring out their flavour and to preserve as much of the nutrients as possible.
It is certainly a balance when cooking with nuts and seeds and their respective oils and the gentler you treat them the better
Sesame Seed Allergies
When it comes to food allergies, there is a lot of public awareness of the prevalence of dairy, eggs, seafood and nut allergies. However sesame seed allergy is now as common as other food or environmental sources, and it is often overlooked.
A typical allergic response usually involves the upper respiratory system, with itchy and water eyes, swelling of the tongue and lips and constriction of the airways as classic symptoms. It can be very serious and requires immediate medical intervention. It’s important to pay attention to even mild symptoms, and in children they can be easily missed. Ear-pulling, irritability, dark circles under the eyes and shortness of breath are common symptoms in little ones.
The protein and oil components of sesame seeds have been shown to trigger an immediate hypersensitivity response or a true allergy response in susceptible individuals.
Interestingly, recent research has shown that the sesamin compound in sesame seeds actually has an immune suppressing action, reducing the white blood cell activity and allergy response involved in the respiratory system. This poses an interesting question on whether exposure to commercialized sesame products, which has the protein, fibre and oil separated and reworked, is a contributing factor to the prevalence of this allergy in modern populations.
If you have concerns or suspect a food allergy to any food, including sesame for yourself or a child, it’s worth talking to your primary health care practitioner to investigate further.
Health Benefits Of Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds possess a high amount of natural oils, up to 60%. They’re also an excellent source of:
These minerals have a wide range of functions in the body, including supporting bone growth, cardiovascular function and hormone function. For their tiny size, they also contain tyrosine, tryptophan and methionine, which are amino acids that support thyroid health, brain health and liver function.
The traditional, medicinal uses of sesame seeds can be traced centuries back in Ayurvedic medicine for use in fertility and to increase energy. The ancient practice of gargling sesame oil was thought to help promote oral health. Black sesame seeds are of particular interest in the world of modern nutrition with many health benefits.
Black Sesame has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of liver and kidney disease, osteoporosis prevention and also possesses anti-cancer properties.
Specifically, black sesame contains other nutrients, such as indole-3-carboxylic acid, hesperidin and Vitamin B2. These nutrients assist in a hormone processing within the liver, promoting brain and immune function and cellular energy production.
There is a wealth of scientific research available on the physiological benefits of whole sesame seeds and their individual components. Some of this research is conducted in a petri dish looking at cells; other papers report on animal studies while more substantiated research exists in human participants. Here’s some interesting components of the research on sesame seeds
Sesame seeds also contain a substance in the outer fibrous part of the skin, known as a lignan. Lignans are a family of polyphenols found predominately in seeds and the highest in sesame seeds. The lignans found in sesame seeds are sesamin and sesamolin.
These compounds have been studied extensively to determine the beneficial health effects on humans. In the digestive tract, intestinal bacteria break down lignans to produce a substance called enterolactone, which has been found to promote healthy oestrogen metabolism.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that a group of post-menopausal women, who consumed 50g of sesame powder per day for 5 weeks, all had improvements in cholesterol, oestrogen and antioxidant status.
Older studies have confirmed a much lower amount of around 13g (approx. 3 teaspoons) of sesame seeds has a similar beneficial effect.
A rat study was conducted to determine the outcomes of sesamin administration on Parkinson’s Disease. Specific biomarkers relating to brain inflammation, such as malondialdehyde and superoxide dismutase were lower in the results of the sesamin group. There was also reduced immune-reactivity and reduced cell degradation in the area of the brain where Parkinson’s Disease is implicated, the substantia nigra.
Another interesting study found that administration of 40g of sesame seeds per day had a beneficial effect on cholesterol profiles and inflammation in a group of patients suffering with knee osteoarthritis. Similarly in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, another study confirmed that 200mg of sesame per day reduced inflammatory markers and therefore resulted in significant improvements in symptoms. Sesamin also shows anti-cancer properties, by interrupting the inflammatory pathways within cancer cells and inducing apoptosis or ‘cell death’. Sesame seeds also have anti-aging qualities due to the synergistic protective activity of Vitamin E and sesamin in the body.
In real terms, most people may not get around to eating the amounts of sesame seeds per day described in the literature, however weaving them where possible into an otherwise healthy diet will still be a good thing for optimizing your health.
500g sesame seeds
½-3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Heat oven to 180deg C
Spread seeds on baking sheet and toast in oven for 10 minutes
Remove and allow to cool for 15 minutes
Combine sesame seeds and oil in a food processor and pulse, scraping the outside as needed. Mix until smooth and creamy consistency is achieved.
Store in a jar or airtight container. Best kept in fridge.
To make a tahini dipping sauce, squeeze in juice of half a lemon and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine. Perfect to dress salad leaves, salmon or roast potatoes.
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup ground sumac
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon sea salt
Grind sesame seeds in a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Mix in spices and salt and enjoy on smashed avocado, rice dishes or grilled fish.
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Dalibalta, S., Majdalawieh, A. F., & Manjikian, H. (2020). Health benefits of sesamin on cardiovascular disease and its associated risk factors. Saudi pharmaceutical journal : SPJ : the official publication of the Saudi Pharmaceutical Society, 28(10), 1276’1289. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsps.2020.08.018
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