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Nutrient-Dense Sunflower Fits Well-Balanced Diets

Wednesday, March 1, 1995
filed under: Utilization/Trade

These days, Americans are inundated with warnings and advice about the importance of “eating right” in order to enjoy good health. For those who listen to such admonitions, it all translates into making numerous daily decisions about what we put (or don’t put) on our plates.

Sunflower is part of America’s edible equation, of course, and recently there have been a variety of reports pertaining to sunflower nutrition. Here’s a summary of a few of the more notable ones.

Vitamin E “Super Source”

With nine milligrams (mg) per two-tablespoon serving, sunflower seeds come out on top in a ranking of vitamin E sources in the most recent issue of American Health magazine. And guess who’s in second place? That’s right — it’s sun oil, with seven mg per single-tablespoon serving. Since the daily value for vitamin E is eight to 10 mg, just one serving of sunflower kernel or oil provides the day’s recommended amount.

Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant credited with helping decrease the risk of cancer, heart disease and cataracts. Some studies have suggested a benefit from vitamin E intake well in excess of the current recommended daily value — one example being a reduced risk of heart disease with intake of at least 100 IU (about 70 mg) per day. Sunflower is an outstanding source of vitamin E — a fact increasingly recognized by consumers.

Nutrient Density

Another well-known magazine, Family Circle, has included sunflower on its list of “super foods” and foods that fight aging. Along with vitamin E, sunflower seeds are good sources of fiber, iron, zinc and copper — all nutrients which rank low in the current American diet. Sunflower was described as a “nutrient dense” food due to its rich quantity of nutrients per calorie.

Despite the nutrient bonus provided by sunflower seeds and other nuts and seeds, many people restrict the quantity of these nutrient powerhouses in their diets. Why? Because they are also seen as being sources of fat and calories.

Fat continues to be the number-one health concern among American consumers. According to a 1994 food industry survey, 59 percent of shoppers reported concern about fat in the foods they eat. That’s up from 42 percent just three years earlier.

According to another survey, this one conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 54 percent of consumers said the main reason they read food product labels is to determine the amount of fat or cholesterol. By comparison, just 16 percent said they look for vitamin and mineral content on the label. Taken to the extreme, this focus on fat content could result in the elimination of foods from the diet that provide substantial quantities of nutrients along with the fat.

Articles promoting the benefits and sources of vitamins and minerals (such as the one in American Health) are helping inform consumers about the need to have at least some higher-fat foods in a healthy diet because of the other nutrients they contain.

To illustrate sunflower’s nutrient density, we’ve looked beyond the fat grams on the nutrition label for three snack choices: sunflower kernel, a chocolate bar and potato chips. As shown in the table below, sunflower kernel is quite similar in terms of total calories to a chocolate bar or potato chips — but simul-taneously lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber, iron, zinc and protein. Sunflower also is higher in vitamin E (though vitamin E often is not listed on nutrition labels).

So compared to these two foods — and to many others as well — sunflower seeds are superior in nutrient density. That’s especially important to the consumer who is in the process of decreasing his or her calorie intake and thus needing optimum nutrition from each calorie consumed. Sunflower definitely fits into today’s healthier diets.

Possible Problems from

Shortage of Linoleic Acid

The mania for low-fat diets which cut out as much fat as possible to prevent heart disease could backfire, according to research from the Boston University Medical Center.

Scientists have suspected that dietary shortages of essential fatty acids (components of dietary fat) such as linoleic acid could lead to a higher risk of heart disease. Such fatty acids — ones which the body cannot produce itself — help regulate the body’s production of saturated fat and cholesterol. The Boston research compared blood levels of essential fatty acids (linoleic and linolenic) of 47 men and women with heart disease versus those of 56 asymptomatic people. The researchers discovered that those individuals with heart disease also had significantly lower essential fatty acid blood levels.

Sunflower oil and kernel are among the best sources of linoleic acid, while vegetable oils high in monounsaturated fatty acids (such as canola and olive) are low in linoleic acid. Although more research is needed to define the role of essential fatty acids in heart disease prevention, this is one situation that clearly illustrates the need for balance in our food intake and fat composition in order to best utilize each food’s benefits.

Meanwhile, the “latest” in nutrition information continues to bombard us, making intelligent daily food choices more complicated than ever. One problem with this onslaught of information is that its sheer volume and rapidity can make people throw up their hands in frustrated confusion. In the 1994 survey alluded to earlier, 47 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: “I’m getting tired of experts telling me which foods are good for me.” A similar percentage reported concerns about fat in their diet; but they simultaneously were uncertain what to do about it.

Finally, here’s one more noteworthy statistic from that survey: 90 percent of the respondents reported “taste” to be their most important consideration when selecting foods. Along with its other advantages, that’s a big feather in sunflower’s cap — and probably the best reason to keep sprinkling those tasty and nutritious sunflower kernels on your salad.
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