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Sesame seed: more than a decorative garnish

Sesame seed: more than a decorative garnish

This has probably never happened: you wake up in the morning and think “I need to eat more sesame seeds.” In Westernized countries, sesame seeds aren’t on the food radar screen other than as a decorative garnish. You find them on burger buns or crackers or bread. They’re tiny and hard to chew up, and are not something to eat by the handful like peanuts.

Sesame is an important food crop in other parts of the world. Sesame is grown in Central and East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Sesame ingredients like seeds, flour, oil and tahini (sesame butter) are important to the culinary traditions in these countries. These ingredients contribute important nutrients to traditional plant-based diets.

Like other nuts and seeds, sesame seeds are a good source of:

  • healthy fats, with a roughly equal proportion of mono- and unsaturated fatty acids*
  • vitamin E
  • plant protein
  • fiber
  • B vitamins
  • magnesium

Other significant nutrients include calcium, zinc, iron, and selenium.

Because sesame seeds are so tiny and hard to chew, they might not be digested thoroughly, so those nutrients might not be available from the seeds in your bread. Grinding the seeds into tahini or flour removes the chewing problem. Tahini is an essential ingredient in hummus and falafel. It’s a wonderful alternative to peanut butter. Spread it on toast or crackers, or use to make salad dressing. Sesame flour would be a nice addition to bread dough or a quickbread, or even cookies. If you do use sesame flour in a favorite recipe, substitute just a small amount to see how if affects the finished product.

Obviously sesame oil will not be a source of protein, fiber and minerals. It is a source of vitamin E and healthy fats. You’d think an oil with all those unsaturated fats would be prone to rancidity, but sesame oil resists oxidation that leads to spoilage. Sesame oil has a rather distinct flavor, and is best used as a flavoring/finishing ingredient that as an oil for sautéeing. Toasted sesame oil works really well on Asian-style stir fry. I use it on vegetable tofu stir fry and on fried rice.

Allergy concerns

Sesame is now the 9th most common food allergy. Food labels must carry warnings about sesame content. If you are allergic to sesame, you might feel confident about avoiding foods with obvious sesame seeds, like hamburger buns, but sesame is used as an ingredient in many other foods. Sesame oil is commonly used in Asian cooking.

Foods that might have sesame ingredients include crackers, bread, cereals (particularly granolas), chips, protein bars, sushi and Asian style prepared foods and sauces. Find a more comprehensive list here. Since sesame is a common ingredient in many parts of the world, a sesame-allergic person would need to be vigilant when traveling. Also note that sesame is referred to as “benne” in many places.

Adding sesame to your plant-based diet

Eating more sesame seeds can be as easy as using tahini more often, whether spread on toast or used in hummus. You can add seeds directly to tossed green salads, or use as a garnish for grain dishes, pasta salads or sautéed vegetables. If you bake bread, sprinkle seeds on top before baking. You could also add seeds to quick breads or cookies, or sprinkle on your morning oatmeal or yogurt.

White sesame seeds are most common and have a mild pleasant flavor. To bring out that flavor, toast them lightly in a heavy duty pan over medium heat for maybe 8-10 minutes. Be careful not to burn them! And remember, they continue to toast after you remove the pan from the heat. Store sesame seeds, toasted or not, in a cool dry location, or in the refrigerator if you don’t use them frequently. Tahini should also be refrigerated if you don’t use it up in a timely fashion.

*Oil (fats) account for almost half the weight of sesame seeds