Sesame – a great little seed well worth your attention. Sesame seeds, oil, tahini, halva, gomashio, things with a sesame coating… the options are endless and delicious!
There are many sesame species native to India and Africa but the one cultivated for seeds we eat is Sesamum indicum – the Indian kind. It’s drought-resistant, able to survive conditions that make other crops fail and this has made it one of the most reliable staples, both throughout the region and in many other countries.
Sesame seeds have a great bunch of minerals to offer – one humble tablespoon provides you with:
18 per cent of recommended daily copper intake – essential for many enzymes, red blood cell formation, nerve and immune function, healthy bones, cartilage, tendons and skin.
11 per cent of manganese – important for healthy bones, skin, cartilage, nervous system and in sugar metabolism.
10 per cent of calcium – crucial for healthy bones and teeth, muscle function, nerve transmission and hormone formation.
9 per cent of iron - essential for the oxygen-carrying molecules haemoglobin and myoglobin in our blood and muscles, and vital for protein formation.
8 per cent of magnesium – necessary for nerve and muscle function, healthy immune system, strong bones, steady heartbeat, blood sugar control and hormone formation.
7 per cent of zinc – needed for vital reactions in the body, wound healing, strong immune system, healthy vision and for male reproductive health.
On top of that, sesame seeds also contain several B vitamins, protein, fibre and unsaturated fats!
These extraordinary seeds are rich in natural compounds called phytosterols – similar in structure to cholesterol but with a positive effect. Plenty of phytosterols in your diet help to lower your blood cholesterol through several complex mechanisms. The effect is so great that many manufacturers have started adding phytosterols in their products to make them healthier. Because lower cholesterol levels mean a lower risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease, these products are marketed as heart-healthy but when you’re vegan, you don’t need to bother with them! A varied vegan diet based on wholefoods provides you with plenty of phytosterols and is the best choice for your heart. Sesame seeds are the richest source of phytosterols in the nut and seed family so are an excellent source.
Sesame oil is very low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fats – namely omega-6. It’s good for you and healthy if you use it sparingly in salad dressings or drizzled on top of dishes but too much can sway your fat intake in the wrong direction. Omega-6 fats compete with omega-3s, reducing their absorption.
A vegan diet naturally tends to provide enough omega-6 fats so our focus should be on omega-3s, in order to get a better balance of the two. Omega-3 rich foods include ground flaxseed, shelled hempseed, chia seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil.
One big advantage of sesame oil is that it has a very high smoke point, meaning it doesn’t degrade easily when you use it for cooking. This makes it a good choice for stir-fries – a small amount is heathy and adds great flavour to a dish!
Sesame seeds contain sesamin and sesamolin – types of fibre with beneficial health effects. They can help to lower cholesterol levels in the blood, they have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may help to boost liver health and even protect us from cancer.
Hulled or not?
Sesame seeds that you get in packets or bulk bins are usually hulled (dehusked) and ready to use. It’s best to buy hulled seeds because their nutrients are more readily absorbed than those from unhulled seeds. If you buy a large quantity, keep only a small amount in a container in your cupboard and store the bulk of them in your freezer to preserve their oils.
Sesame seeds that haven’t been hulled are often labelled ‘natural’ and look a little bigger, puffier and slightly more beige than hulled seeds. They contain more fibre and calcium but it’s less bioavailable. You’re better off using hulled seeds unless you want to add extra crunch to your meals.
Unhulled seeds are usually the main ingredient in the traditional Japanese condiment – gomashio. Toasted sesame seeds are ground with salt and sometimes have a little seaweed added. Gomashio adds a wonderful savoury flavour to your dishes and reduces the amount of salt you need to add. This sesame-salt combination enhances your perception of how salty the dish really is and so you end up using less salt overall.
Sesame seeds or tahini (sesame seed paste) are an amazing addition to almost any meal - dessert, snack or smoothie. Sesame seeds can be added to your morning cereal, sprinkled over savoury dishes, salads, sushi bowls, mixed in cake batters and bread doughs or used as a coating for sushi, sweet energy balls or biscuits.
Tahini is almost magical – it thickens and adds creaminess to sauces, can be drizzled over porridge, risottos or noodle dishes, makes a delicious spread for bread (beautifully combining with jam or chocolate, yeast extracts or miso paste), is excellent for salad dressings and increases nutritional value of smoothies and soups.
You may well have eaten black sesame seeds in Asian restaurant dishes or perhaps seen them in the ‘World Cuisine’ corners of supermarkets. The difference between black and regular sesame seeds is that the black variety are always unhulled - it’s only the husk that’s black. They are crunchier and have a slightly stronger flavour than white sesame seeds. Nutritionally, they are almost identical but thanks to the intense pigment, they have a higher content of health-protective phenolic compounds. It’s a trade-off - it’s harder for our bodies to extract nutrients from unhulled seeds so you get slightly less calcium from black sesame, but you get more health-promoting antioxidants and phenols. The main effect of black seeds is visual because they look fantastic in or on almost any dish!
Sesame has a long and rich tradition, spanning at least five millennia and was used by many great civilisations, including ancient Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, Indians and many Middle Eastern and African nations. It’s a true treasure and a food well-deserving of a place in your kitchen.
PS Why not try some sesame recipes from Vegan Recipe Club?