Sunflower Seeds: These Kernels Pack a Big Nutritional Punch

As far back as 3,000 B.C., North American Indians have been grinding or pounding sunflower seeds into flour for cakes, mush or bread, mixing the meal with beans, squash and corn, and cracking the seeds for snacks.
In today’s kitchen, cooks find sunflower seeds just as versatile. Mix the kernels into hot or cold cereals, or layer them into fruit and yogurt parfaits. Sunflower seeds are a wholesome snack or addition to trail mix. Use them in place of nuts in pesto and salads, and in baked goods such as muffins, quick breads and cookies. However, using kernels and baking soda together in baking recipes causes a chemical reaction that gives baked goods a benign but unappealing blue or green tint.
Sunflower seed butter is available in supermarkets and health food stores, or you can make your own — it’s a good alternative for those with peanut allergies. Spread sunflower seed butter on sandwiches or apple slices, or use it as a substitute for tahini in hummus. Sunflower beverages are made with roasted kernels and found in shelf-stable cartons. Try them as a milk alternative on cereal and in smoothies.
Tiny Seeds, Big Health Benefits
Whether pictured in a van Gogh painting or gracing a garden, the sunflower’s brazen good looks are enchanting. But its charms go much deeper: The inner hub holds a tasty and nutritious trove of black-and-white striped seeds.
Tiny, edible sunflower seed kernels are packed with nutrition. One ounce of roasted kernels contains 170 calories, is a good source of protein, fiber, zinc, folate and vitamin B6, and supplies about one-third of the Daily Value for vitamin E and phosphorus. The seeds are also rich in healthful unsaturated fatty acids. The USDA counts one ounce of hulled sunflower seeds as a two ounce equivalent in the Protein Foods Group.
Sunflower seeds contain the essential nutrient choline, important for healthy cell structure, synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and brain and memory development in the fetus. A 100-gram serving of sunflower kernels contains 55mg of choline; the daily adequate intake for choline is 550mg for men and 425mg for women. Patients with latex allergy should be cautious when eating sunflower seeds, since they may have an increased risk for an IgE-mediated food-induced reaction.
Cooking Sunflower Seeds in Quantity
Sunflower seeds come in several forms: in-shell, hulled or sprouted kernels; raw, dry-roasted or oil-roasted; plain, salted or flavored.
For quantity recipes, order kernels by the case in multi-pound bags; both kernels and in-shell seeds are available in single-serving packs perfect for snack racks.
Store whole raw kernels in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to three months and store in-shell seeds for up to one year. To extend shelf life, wrap and freeze sunflower seeds for up to two years. Store roasted seeds at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Because of their high fat content, check all types of sunflower seeds for rancidity before using.
Sunflower seed kernels often appear on salad bars, but also add crunch and nutrients when used in waffle and pancake batter, as a topping for casseroles and steamed vegetables, or as a garnish on grain dishes, tuna salad and canned fruit. Offer them in baked goods and on sundae bars. Sprouted sunflower seeds add interest to salads and sandwiches.


Cinnamon Vanilla Sunflower Butter

Developed by Marisa McClellan

2 cups raw sunflower seeds
1/4 cup sunflower oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons vanilla bean paste, plus more as needed
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon, plus more as needed


  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Spread sunflower seeds on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast in oven until seeds are fragrant and golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring at least twice during baking to ensure even roasting.
  2. Remove baking sheet from oven and let seeds cool for 10 minutes.
  3. Pour toasted seeds into a food processor. Add sea salt and 1 tablespoon of the sunflower oil; begin to run the processor.
  4. As seeds break down, drizzle in remaining sunflower oil. Continue to process in 10- to 20-second intervals, stopping the processor after each interval to break up clumps and scrape down sides of bowl.
  5. As the mixture begins to look like butter, add vanilla paste and cinnamon and pulse to incorporate.
  6. Taste; add an additional pinch of cinnamon, vanilla or salt if necessary.
  7. Scrape the sunflower seed butter into a jar and store in refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  8. Makes 1 ½ cups

Nutritional Info
Serving size: 2 tablespoons
Calories: 180
Total Fat: 17g; Saturated Fat: 1.5g
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 120mg
Carbohydrates: 6g; Fiber: 2g; Sugars: 1g
Protein: 5g; Potassium: n/a; Phosphorus: n/a

Recipe reprinted from Food in Jars (Running Press 2012) by Marisa McClellan.

Sunflower Muffins

Recipe by Cara Anselmo, MS, RD, CDN

Makes 12 medium-sized muffins

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup sunflower seed butter
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup canola oil
¼ cup unrefined coconut oil
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup almond milk or soy milk
1 cup finely chopped mixed nuts (I use pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, or whatever I have on hand)


  1. Preheat oven to 375° and place paper liners in muffin tin.
  2. Combine flours, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
  3. In a standard mixer, combine sunflower butter, sugar, oils, egg and vanilla. Add in soymilk and mix until batter is evenly textured.
  4. Add dry ingredients to above, mix just until combined. Stir in half of the chopped nuts.
  5. Fill muffin cups about 3/4-full with batter. Top each muffin with a sprinkle of the remaining 1/2 cup of chopped nuts.
  6. Bake 25 minutes, or until tops are browned and a knife inserted to the center comes out clean.

Cooking Note
These muffins are delicious straight from the oven, but even better if you let them stand for a few hours after baking. They keep well for 2 days in a tightly sealed container, or wrap extras in foil and keep in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Diane Quagliani
Diane Quagliani, MBA, RDN, LDN, is president of Quagliani Communications, Inc., a nutrition communications firm in Western Springs, Ill.