Updated: Jan. 19, 2017
Find out how unleashing the power of sesame seeds can do to transform your heart health, prevent osteoporosis and cancer and more…
“Open Sesame”, commanded Ali Baba to the cave door. In the popular fable of One Thousand and One Nights, Ali Baba was stunned when he discovered the treasures hidden by the forty thieves inside the cave. As Open Sesame had unlocked the riches that changed Ali Baba’s life, so can sesame seeds unleash the healing power to transform your health.
Tiny but Nutritionally Intense
The tiny, unassuming seed with its native origin in Africa, India and Indonesia is nutritionally packed with a high content of, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, vitamins (A, B, E) and dietary fibre. They are also an excellent source of antioxidants and polyphenols, including lignans – and contains about 20% protein.
The best high-quality sesame seeds come from Ethiopia, according Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook in their book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.
Cultivated over 3,500 years ago, sesame seeds has one of the highest oil content of any edible seeds. Half of the seed contains fat: 38% monounsaturated and 44% polyunsaturated, total 82% unsaturated fatty acids. Sesamum indicum L., the cultivar originating from India can thrive in drought-tolerant environment- making it a desirable cash crop for poor communities living in harsh terrains.
Sesame seeds, like peas, are harvested from mature pods of an annual flowering plant. They are sold in four varieties, namely: white, brown, red, and black – best known for its nutritional and antioxidant properties. The white variety is stripped off its hull where most of the calcium, bioactive compounds like phenolics, phytates as well as natural antioxidants like sesamin, sesamolin and sesamol are stored.
Impressive Health Benefits
Egyptians called it sesemt. The use of sesame seeds as medicine is documented in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus scrolls over 35 centuries ago.
Today, sesame seed continues to play a vital role in complementary and alternative medicine.
Its oil is used as a health stimulant and flavouring agent in Japan, Korea and many Middle Eastern countries. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, sesame oil functions to strengthen and detoxify the body. Chinese medicine use sesame seeds, particularly, the black variety to support kidney and eye health, boost energy and prevent aging. Other benefits:
- Bone, eye and skin health – high calcium in the black variety enhances bone strength, prevent osteoporosis. Vitamin A improves eye health and E enhances the skin vigour.
- Heart health and cancer protection – sesamin and seamolin help reduce cholesterol level and aid in cancer prevention. Magnesium, potassium and calcium prevent and/or lower blood pressure (hypertension).
- Relief and relaxes body – magnesium and calcium present in the seed alleviate stress and relax the body, providing asthma and migraine relief as well as reduce hot flushes, irritability during menopause.
- Nourishes the nervous system – relieve fatigue and insomnia. Sesame seed is ranked number two after chia seeds on the high tryptophan (amino acid) foods list. Tryptophan helps create serotonin which supports healthy sleep and stable mood.
- Hair growth – the black variety according to Chinese medicine, can reverse premature hair loss and gray hair
- Laxative – a constipation and indigestion reliever
- Lactation aid – In Chinese medicine, black sesame seeds are used to improve breast milk supply
Rich and nutty in flavour, it is a common cooking ingredient used by many cultures around the world. Toasting enhances the nuttiness of the seed.
Myanmar, India and China are the world’s top three producers. The biggest consumer is Japan. The seeds are often used for garnishing in Japanese cuisine and/or mix with other ingredients to make condiments like gomashio and furikake.
Oil extracted from toasted sesame seeds is an essential ingredient in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian cooking. In fast food, sesame seeds are common toppings on hamburger buns.
The Persians ground the seed into a paste to make tahini (sesame butter). The secret to making delicious tahini is to remove as much water and fibre from the seeds leaving behind pure fat. A well-made tahini is creamy, nutty and rich in texture with a hint of delicate sweetness. Roasting the seeds gives the butter its smoky flavour. Hummus, a delicious Middle Eastern creamy dip is made of tahini and chickpeas.
To prevent rancidity, tahini should be refrigerated on opening. Refrigeration also helps extend the shelf life of sesame oil. The seeds are best stored in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dark place. Unhulled seeds have longer shelf life.
When purchasing hulled sesame seeds, look for “mechanically hulled” to avoid bleaches and toxic solvents being used in the de-hulling process.
Medical Take on Sesame
While high in dietary fibre and nutrient-rich, the type of calcium present in unhulled sesame seeds is calcium oxalate (a salt which is formed when oxalic acid combines with calcium), which may be less absorbable by the intestine.
According to Havard Medical School researchers, less absorption by the intestine means there is less oxalic acid for the kidneys to process, hence reducing the risk of developing calcium oxalate kidney stones. A link to the study is available at the end of this article.
Oxalate level is usually higher in the leaves, roots, stem or stalk of a plant than in its seed. Those on an oxalate-restricted diet should consume sesame seeds with caution. Like nuts and certain foods, sesame seeds can cause allergic reactions, so it is best to consult with your medical specialist prior to consuming the seeds.