Plant-sourced ingredients, are becoming increasing popular because of their sustainability, versatility, and relatively low cost, as well as their well-deserved health halo. Cultures around the world have treated illnesses and ailments using seeds as traditional medicine components. These qualities have opened the door to a jump in the use of less familiar seeds and nuts in food product development.

Focusing first on seeds, some trending varieties in food processing encompass those in the parsley family, and include seeds from celery, carrot, caraway, cumin, dill, lady’s lace, fennel, and, of course, parsley itself. The tiny seeds in this family are known for their antibacterial and antimicrobial effects, and research has been supporting some of the claims. Both fennel and lady’s lace (Ammi majus) have demonstrated potent properties against Staphylococcus, E. coli, and other bacteria.

For example, according to a 2015 study, celery seed extract is at least as effective as aspirin and ibuprofen in treating arthritis, and could be applicable to other inflammatory diseases.

Celery seed extract also has been cited as effective in reducing the risk of ulcers (as have fennel seeds), and some studies found it to be effective against Helicobacter pylori, bacteria that cause stomach ulcers. Other evidence supports celery seed extract (ingested) is  an effective agent against mosquitos, especially those that carry Dengue fever.

Celery seed has a strong flavor and commonly is used in pickling, sandwich fillings, condiments (such as mustard and chutney), and soups and stews. It also enjoys common use in fish marinades, poaching liquid, vegetable dips, and as an inclusion or sprinkled topping for bread and rolls. It even has been included in herbal teas. Celery seed extract has been gaining use in food processing as a natural preservative and antimicrobial agent.

Aromatic and anise-like fennel seed is packed with nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It’s seen double duty in sweet baked goods, such as cakes and pastries, and in savory formulations, from Italian sausage to Indian curry dishes, as well as in condiments and fish dishes.

Health-wise, fennel seed has long been used as a digestive, and science supports its calming effect on upset stomachs. It has a slightly numbing effect when chewed and traditionally was used to mitigate mouth sore pain and toothaches. In 2010, Nestlé S.A. filed a patent for use of thymoquinone, a compound found in fennel seed that helps reduce allergic reactions to foods.

Cumin has a long and global history in Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes, as well as in teas and Indian beverages such as jeera water. It is found in some cheeses, French breads, stews, soups, pickles, pastries, salads, and chili powder. It also appears to have antimicrobial properties and may help reduce sensitivity to pain.

Deli Favorites

A number of seed ingredients that do double duty as flavorants and health components come right out of the classic delicatessen palette. Dill seed is a prime example, ubiquitous in pickles, relishes, vinegars, and slaws, and other mixed salads. It also is found in gravlax (Norwegian cured salmon), borscht, and on top of breads. Dill contains an antibacterial agent that has been added to Egyptian kareish soft cheese to combat Staphylococcus, often present in that soft, farmer’s- style cheese.

Caraway seeds are well-known from their use in rye and pumpernickel breads, sauerkraut, cheese (such as Havarti), and pastrami. A review of scientific literature in 2002, as well as a 2015 study, revealed caraway can relieve indigestion and might also help prevent complications in diabetes.

What’s a deli without mustard? There are more than 40 different varieties of mustard seed. All are rich in poly- and mono-unsaturated oil (50%) and protein (44%), plus minerals, lutein and – compounds good for eye health. Mustard seeds contain such healthy phytonutrients as glucosinolates, studied for their anti-cancer effects. Yellow mustard seed bran has been shown to lower the glycemic response (the rate at which sugar rises in the blood) in soup formulations. One of the most promising functional properties for the food industry is the use of mustard seed as a replacement for nitrites for preventing oxidation in organic, fermented sausages.

Americans are familiar with sesame seeds sprinkled on top of buns, breads, bagels, bread sticks and crackers; however, they are used in many other foods around the world. Sesame seeds are present in sushi, dim sum, sesame seed balls, soups, salads, cookies, paste, and even a peanut brittle-type candy. And no self-respecting deli would be without halvah or tahini.

The size, form, and color of sesame seeds vary by variety; they are available in white, buff, tan, gold, brown, red, gray, and black. The most common are the lighter colored. A drawback to sesame is that the seeds become rancid quickly, unless stored in a cool, dry environment.

Some sesame seeds are grown in the US, primarily in Texas; but the majority are imported, usually from the Middle East. Sesame allergies have been reported and are growing. It is estimated, however, that .1-.2% of the worldwide population is allergic to sesame. Canada requires allergenic labeling on sesame products; the US is considering it.

Sesame contains healthful compounds called lignans. These include sesamin and sesamolin, known for their high antioxidant properties and inhibition of browning in fruit pulps. Sesamolin also has been used as an antimicrobial against food-borne pathogens.


Grapeseed, primarily a byproduct of the wine industry, has experienced strong popularity as a source of cooking oil. It is similar in its properties and flavor to olive oil, alongside which it is typically positioned.   Grapeseed, however, has values to food making other than oil. As a nutraceutical, it contains concentrated amounts of antioxidants, vitamin E, and linoleic acid.

Grapeseed extract has been used as an antioxidant in a beef-pork sausage. It can successfully retain fresh-cooked flavor and aroma in processed meats, even after four months of storage.

There also is potential for using the extract for cancer and wound-healing. The University of Maryland reports good evidence for treating chronic venous insufficiency (leading to blood pooling in the legs) and edema using grapeseed extract.

Preliminary research shows promising results for lowering total and LDL cholesterol, as well as for lowering blood pressure and preventing the growth of many cancers. Grapeseed extracts, however, are not recommended for children or pregnant/breast-feeding women.

Sunflower seeds are enjoying renewed popularity as a snack, as well as an inclusion in food formulations. They also were used to develop a dairy milk analog several years ago. The snack choices that once were limited to salted or unsalted, and in the shell or hulled, have expanded to include numerous flavoring options, including barbeque, bacon, ranch, hot chili pepper, nacho cheese, pickled, and others.

Sunflower seeds are well known for their high level of unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, and a number of vitamins and minerals. They also contain phytosterols, plant cholesterol mimics that can help lower total and LDL blood cholesterol. Sunflower is one of the few native plants to North America and is non-GMO. One of the most successful products in recent years is sunflower seed butter. It was introduced as Sunbutter by SunGold Foods Inc., in 2002, as a replacement for peanut butter for those with peanut allergies.

Pumpkin seeds have a long tradition as pepitas, a snacking seed popular in Mexico and the Southwest. They are high in protein and monounsaturated fats, plus contain a healthy amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Pumpkin seeds also contain squalene, a sterol that promotes heart health. There also has been some research showing them to be beneficial for treating benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), common in older males.

As with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds have been bursting out in a variety of flavors, including lime and chili pepper. Long a staple of Mexican molé sauce, today’s processors use them liberally in granola mixes, cookies, breads, crackers, casseroles, salads, rice, vegetable dishes, and even desserts. Yoplait USA Inc. makes a flax and pumpkin seed line, and Nature’s Path Foods Inc. sold a Pumpkin Raisin Crunch cereal for several years with great success.

While flax seed has enjoyed a healthy and continuing term of popularity, 2015 was chia seed’s “coming out” year, and it is still extremely popular. Native to Mexico and Central America, it is high in omega-3 fats, fiber, protein, and numerous vitamins and minerals. It can be found in breakfast cereals, bars, and beverages, and is beginning to claim a place as a type of flour that can replace oil and eggs up to 25% in cakes.

One study found that when chia and buckwheat were combined, they produced a better gluten-free bread than most on the market. Because of its gelling properties, it also works well for thickened beverages. Chia is not a known allergen, and while sometimes promoted for weight loss, those claims have yet to be proven. Chia also has a number of compounds shown to help prevent heart disease.

“Chia seeds absorb nine times their weight when wet,” says Kathleen Gilbert, vice president of R&D for Sundia Corp.’s True Chia line of puddings. “To get the consistency correct neither too firm nor too runny  was not an easy task. We decided to work with premium, white chia seeds, finding them to be consistent in gel formation. We also use fresh coconut milk to balance the texture of chia seeds and enhance the flavors.” Gilbert notes that the goal of True Chia pudding is not only to be appealing but to open opportunities for consumers to gain the benefits of chia in a product they can enjoy on a daily basis.

Going Nuts

Nut consumption is associated with heart and eye health and improved cognition, as well as decreased incidence of diabetes, gallstones, high blood pressure, and obesity. There seem to be no drawbacks to consuming nuts on a regular basis, except for the rare exception of allergies.

A meta-analysis on tree nuts covering 61 controlled, intervention trials using 2,500 participants was published last spring by Tufts University in its newsletter. Results concluded that intake of tree nuts lowered total and LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. The nuts most studied were almonds and walnuts, but pistachios, macadamia, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts also were included. Peanuts, being a legume, were not included in this analysis, but similar studies have proven them to be similarly effective as tree nuts in regards to health benefits and satiety.

While hundreds of studies on nuts and peanuts have supported their nutrition value, a 2015 meta-study of more than 200,000 people in the US and China found that those consumers with the highest level of nut consumption had a 21% lower
mortality risk than those who ate the least; in Shanghai, it was 17% lower. The authors concluded: “Consumption of nuts, particularly peanuts, given their general affordability, may be considered a cost-effective measure to improve cardiovascular health.”

Because all nuts are so nutritious, there is a qualified health claim that covers nuts, in general. It states: “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5oz per day of most nuts–as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol [could help] reduce the risk of heart disease.” Nuts that meet this claim include almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. It also covers some “nut-containing” products, which must meet levels for total and saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Walnuts have their own qualified health claim for heart disease.

The International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation’s website ( contains numerous studies to back these health claims. When it comes to new uses for nuts, Maureen Ternus, MS, RD, the council’s executive director, recommends substituting up to 25% of flour in baked goods with a high- protein nut flour or meal.

Nuts add flavor, texture, and nutrients to dairy products, such as ice cream, yogurt, and soft cheeses, but they often need a moisture-barrier to keep them crisp—and chocolate is the perfect go-to solution. Nuts also are gluten-free, making them popular among gluten-free processors, especially since so many gluten-free products are low in nutritional value. Many nuts are known allergens, so it is crucial to take that into consideration.

One of the most common and prevalent uses of nuts today is in the form of dairy milk analogs. Almond milk has enjoyed a long run as a soy-free milk analog, along with rice milk and milk substitutes from a number of seeds and grains (including hemp, flax, and, recently, corn and sunflower). Today, cashew milk, hazelnut milk, and pecan milk are staking their claims on the milk-alternative shelf with success.

The value of nuts and seeds when it comes to nutrition—with high amounts of protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients—is exceeded only by their versatility and consumer appeal. These factors continue to make them important additions to the food product developer’s tool kit.


Originally appeared in the June, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Seeds of Change.

Brownies, Anyone?

Hemp seed—already a popular ingredient for its ALA omega-3 content—is grown in 30 countries around the world and does not contain THC, the hallucinatory element in cannabis. But the burst of interest in cannabis foods has been giving hemp an extra high.

Hemp has been grown around the world for at least 12,000 years. In the US, the 2014 Farm Bill allows universities and state departments of agriculture to research/grow hemp in the 32 states that allow hemp production. However, farmers still risk federal prosecution for growing hemp, even in those states, because hemp is banned by the federal DEA.

Hemp contains all nine essential amino acids, although lysine is limited. Its protein quality is higher than some grains, nuts, and pulses, and it also is high in fiber, the aforementioned omega-3 fatty acids, and several minerals. There even was a study on neuro-degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that found hemp to be potentially effective at mitigating symptoms.

Hemp seeds can be eaten raw or toasted, or ground into a meal. Current uses include tofu, ice cream, “milk,” and seasoning mixes. Hemp flour also can replace some flour in baking, for items not requiring high volume.

Spitting Image

Usually discarded singly and with gusto by oral propulsion, watermelon seeds actually are quite nutritious.

They can be roasted and salted, like in-shell sunflower seeds, as a simple snack, or they can be sprouted, roasted, and shelled for salads and vegetable dishes. They even have been stirred into yogurt. Watermelon seeds also can be ground and made into a flour. They are high in protein, magnesium, iron, zinc, and
unsaturated fat. Freeland Foods LLC’s Go Raw line of snacks uses sprouted watermelon seeds in its new energy bars. The company also sells sprouted, shelled seeds in snack packages.