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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:03 AM

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Nothing nutty about eating seeds

Seeds are not just for the birds. They are tiny packages of antioxidants, vitamins and plant compounds that can help lower cholesterol and offer other health benefits to humans. But use them sparingly.

Special to The Times

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Why should nuts get all the nutritional glory while birds get all the seeds? Seeds offer just as much nutrition and culinary versatility as their larger cousins. Even better, they are a good dietary alternative for many people who have peanut or tree-nut allergies, as adverse reactions to edible seeds are fairly uncommon.

There’s a clear difference between nuts and seeds that isn’t obvious to non-botanists. In general, seeds are rich in the antioxidant vitamin E, which is beneficial for heart health and cancer prevention. Seeds also contain phytosterols, plant compounds that can help lower cholesterol and offer other health benefits.

Flaxseeds are unique among seeds in that they are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Numerous studies have suggested that flaxseeds have cardiovascular benefits. Flaxseeds are also a good source of several nutrients, especially fiber and antioxidants. Whole flaxseeds keep for one to two years in the refrigerator. Ground flaxseeds are more digestible but have a shorter shelf life, about six to 16 weeks in the refrigerator.

Chia seeds have outgrown their reputation as a novelty gift item (“Ch-ch-ch-chia!”) to claim status as a nutritional powerhouse. They nearly rival flaxseeds for their omega-3 and fiber content and may help promote stable blood sugar levels after eating. These tiny seeds contain respectable amounts of calcium and other minerals important for bone health, as well as several antioxidant minerals.

Pumpkin seeds are a good source of zinc, magnesium and iron. They contain small amounts of several forms of vitamin E, and research suggests that there is a health benefit to consuming E in all of its different forms. They also contain other antioxidant nutrients, giving them distinctive health properties. When roasting pumpkin seeds, limit oven time to 20 minutes to avoid undesirable changes to the oil inside.

Sunflower seeds are a good source of many important vitamins and minerals and are rich in the powerful antioxidant pair vitamin E and selenium. They get great ratings for phytosterol, protein and fiber content. Opt for unsalted sunflower seeds.

Sesame seeds are especially rich in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols and are higher in protein than any nut or seed. They contain a number of minerals that are important for bone health (such as calcium) or act as antioxidants (such as zinc). The fiber in sesame seeds may promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Sesame paste (tahini) is an important ingredient in hummus. Allergies to sesame seeds are increasing, particularly among people allergic to peanuts or certain tree nuts.

While seeds are nutritious, they are high in calories and (healthful) fat, so be mindful of portion sizes. Consider using them as a substitute for other protein-containing foods, instead of simply adding them to your diet. Sprinkle on salads or sautéed veggies. Add to your morning oatmeal or cold cereal. Mix some into yogurt. Add to baked goods or homemade granola.

Because of their high fat content, seeds benefit from being stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, ideally in the refrigerator, or even the freezer.

Next time: Should you believe health claims?

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