Sesame seeds are truly one of the most ancient foods on Earth. In fact, sesame plants are the oldest known plant species to be grown primarily for their seeds and oils rather than for their leaves, fruits or vegetables.
Highly valued in eastern, Mediterranean and African cultures, sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum) have been used for thousands of years to flavor foods, provide essential fats and enhance skin health. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed and boasts a rich, nutty flavor, which is why sesame oil, tahini and the seeds themselves are common ingredients in cuisines across the world.
Ready to learn more about this delicious and nutritious ingredient? Keep reading for a full list of sesame seeds benefits and side effects, plus how you can add this super seed to your daily diet.
What Are Sesame Seeds?
Although sesame seeds are a common ingredient added to everything from stir-fries to bagels, many people often wonder: Where do sesame seeds come from?
Sesame seeds are derived from a flowering sesame plant in the genus Sesamum. Sesame seed pods burst open when they reach full maturity, revealing the seeds of the sesame seed plant, which hold its valuable oils. Sesame seeds contain up to 60 percent oil and 20 percent protein, making them a high source of both essential fatty acids and amino acids.
The seeds contain about 50 percent to 60 percent of a fatty oil that is characterized by two beneficial members of the lignan family: sesamin and sesamolin. Sesame oil also contains two other phenolic compounds, sesamol and sesaminol, which are formed during the refining process.
Oil derived from sesame is rich in linoleic and oleic acids, the majority of which are gamma-tocopherol and other isomers of vitamin E. Some of the specific amino acids found in each serving include lysine, tryptophan and methionine. (1)
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- Rich in Essential Nutrients
- Lower Cholesterol Levels
- Reduce Blood Pressure
- Balance Hormone Levels
- Fight Cancer Cell Growth
- Boost Fat-Burning
- Enhance Nutrient Absorption
1. Rich in Essential Nutrients
One of the biggest black sesame seeds benefits is their impressive nutrient profile. In fact, sesame seeds are a good source of protein and fiber as well as key minerals like copper, manganese and calcium.
The iron found in sesame can help prevent iron deficiency tied to anemia and boost low energy levels. And although copper deficiency isn’t as common, sesame seeds provide a good dose of the copper needed per day to maintain nerve, bone and metabolic health.
Sesame also contains a good deal of calcium, although there is some controversy over how useful that calcium is. Like all nuts and seeds, sesame seeds contain some natural antinutrients that may block a percentage of the calcium from actually being absorbed and used within the body. Essentially, the calcium is bound to oxalic acid, making it less bioavailable and beneficial.
Hulling sesame seeds, which is a process that involves removing their outer skin, can help remove a much of the oxalic acid but unfortunately also removes most of the calcium, fiber, potassium and iron. In some parts of the world, such as Japan, whole toasted sesame seeds are commonly eaten and considered an essential part of the diet because eating them unhulled, whole and toasted can help improve assimilation of calcium and other nutrients.
Cooking has been shown to remove most of the oxalates from other foods, although this process raises other concerns for damaging the delicate oils found within the seeds. (2) There seems to be pros and cons of eating sesame seeds in different ways, so essentially choose the kind that you like best and round it out with a healthy diet to fill in any nutritional gaps.
2. Lower Cholesterol Levels
Sesame seeds rank highest in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols of nearly all nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. Phytosterols are a type of phytonutrient or plant sterols structurally similar to cholesterol that act in the intestine to lower cholesterol absorption. (3) They help displace cholesterol within the intestinal tract, reducing the pool of available and absorbable cholesterol. Some research has shown that among 27 different nuts and seeds tested, sesame seeds, alongside wheat germ, come out on top as having the highest phytosterol content. (4)
Sesame seeds are also rich in lignans, a type of polyphenol that can improve lipid profiles and normalize cholesterol levels. Lignans help naturally lower cholesterol in a few ways and can reduce cholesterol levels in both the blood and liver. (5, 6) For this reason, researchers sometimes refer to sesame seed phytochemicals as “hypocholesterolemic agents” thanks to their potent cholesterol-lowering properties.
3. Reduce Blood Pressure
Sesame oil is considered a strong antihypertensive thanks to its ability to help naturally lower blood pressure levels. One 2006 study published in the Yale Journal of Biological Medicine investigated the effects of sesame oil on people with high blood pressure and found that it was effective at reducing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (7)
Not only that, but researchers also found that supplementing with sesame oil for 45 days was able to decrease cell damage caused by lipid peroxidation while also increasing antioxidant status to promote better heart health in patients.
4. Balance Hormone Levels
Research suggests that sesame seeds may be especially beneficial for post-menopausal women thanks to their ability to increase and regulate levels of sex hormones, improve antioxidant status, and help manage cholesterol levels to optimize health. Plus, sesamin, a type of sesame lignan, was shown to be converted by intestinal microflora to enterolactone, a phytoestrogen compound with estrogen-like activity. (8)
Additionally, because they’re high in essential fatty acids, protein and a wide range of important vitamins and minerals, sesame seeds can also be included as a staple ingredient in a pregnancy diet by maintaining healthy hormone levels and supplying the nutrients needed for a healthy mother and baby.
5. Fight Cancer Cell Growth
Much like flaxseeds, sesame seeds are a rich source of lignan precursors. These specific compounds are produced by the microflora in the colon and have been shown to have powerful cancer-fighting effects on several specific types of cancer.
A 2005 in vitro study conducted by the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto investigated the effects of giving 25 grams of unground whole flaxseeds and sesame seeds to healthy postmenopausal women over a four-week period. Urine test results showed an increase in mammalian lignans from the women receiving both whole flaxseeds and sesame seeds, suggesting that both are effectively converted by the bacterial flora in the colon, potentially helping to protect against the growth and spread of colon cancer cells. (9)
Similarly, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition also found that dietary lignans may act as a natural cancer treatment to reduce breast cancer risk by modifying tumor characteristics. In the study, lignan intakes were associated with a lower risk of estrogen receptor negative breast cancer. After tracking total and specific lignan intake of 683 women with breast cancer and 611 healthy women without breast cancer, it was found that the women with the highest intake of lignans compared to the lowest intake had a 40 percent to 50 percent lower chance of developing breast cancer. (10)
6. Boost Fat-Burning
Some studies suggest that certain compounds found in sesame seeds could help boost fat-burning and keep your waistline in check. In fact, a 2012 animal study out of Maryland actually found that giving rats a powder enriched with lignans helped reduce both body weight and fat accumulation. (11)
Plus, sesame seeds are also high in fiber, packing in 1.1 grams into a single tablespoon. Dietary fiber helps slow the emptying of the stomach to keep you feeling fuller for longer. It can also keep blood sugar levels steady to prevent spikes and crashes, which can lead to increased hunger and cravings. (12)
7. Enhance Nutrient Absorption
The lignans found in black sesame seeds can enhance the antioxidant activity of vitamin E, maximizing the health benefits and helping you get the most nutritional value possible from each serving. (13) Sesame seeds also contain a good amount of essential fatty acids, which are needed for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. For this reason, including a source of healthy fat like sesame seeds, sesame oil or sesame butter with a nutrient-dense meal can help you actually absorb and use the nutrients more efficiently.