Food as Medicine: Arugula (Eruca sativa, Brassicaceae)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat

Arugula (Eruca sativa, Brassicaceae), also known as rucola and rocket, is a weedy annual that is drought-tolerant and prefers a hot, dry climate. The name “arugula” is a modern American designation and likely derives from the Italian term “rucola.” The name “rocket” is more common in British English, as is roquette in France. Both rucola and roquette are diminutives of the Latin eruca, which means “caterpillar” and may refer to the fuzzy appearance of the young stems. The different names for arugula demonstrate the wide area where it grows, in a swath of the northern Mediterranean and the near east that stretches from Portugal to Afghanistan. It has been naturalized in northern Europe and North America.

Arugula is distinguished by its upright stem, which can have four-petaled white, yellow, or purple flowers, as well as its green, aromatic, serrated leaves. It’s thin, narrow fruit is a pod filled with small, oil-rich seeds. Although it is commonly thought of as a relative of spinach or lettuce, it is actually a cruciferous vegetable of the family Brassicaceae, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage.

arugula flowerThe leaves and seeds of arugula are both edible. The leaves boast an aromatic, peppery, and mustard-like flavor and are mainly consumed raw in salads. Young leaves are tenderer and have a milder flavor, while mature leaves are larger, woodier, and more bitter. The seeds can be pressed for oil.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

As a leafy green vegetable and a member of the family Brassicaceae, arugula is an extremely nutrient-dense food. It is low in calories and rich in vitamins A, C and K, folate, magnesium, and calcium. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium help controls blood pressure and maintains bone health. It also provides riboflavin, potassium, copper, iron, and zinc. Arugula’s health benefits are a potent combination of cruciferous vegetable and leafy green, as it contains compounds found in both: glucosinolates, a group of compounds which exert powerful anticancer and detoxifying mechanisms, and antioxidant phytochemicals such as carotenes and chlorophyll. Compared to other brassica plants, arugula has one of the highest beta-carotene, kaempferol, and quercetin contents.

Arugula seed oil, commonly called taramira or Jamba oil, is likewise rich in glucosinolates. It also contains high amounts of erucic and gadoleic acids, which have more commercial than health benefits, as detailed in the following section.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Ancient and modern practitioners interpret arugula’s peppery taste as a fiery, “lively” quality, which lends itself to a variety of different uses. In the ancient world, the Romans and the Egyptians considered arugula to be a potent aphrodisiac which was used to “restore vigor to the genitalia,” and planted it at the base of statues of the god Priapus, who was considered the god of fertility, livestock, and gardens. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac was widespread and persistent, and some monasteries banned its cultivation on their grounds, citing its “hotness and lechery.”

Arugula had widespread use in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine practices, primarily for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It was taken orally as a general tonic for wellness and as an aid to digestion and kidney function. Additionally, records exist of a physician’s prescribing a topical treatment of ground seeds mixed with cream for acne. Evidence of arugula use and cultivation dates back to the Hellenistic Period in Greece (323 BCE – 31 BCE).

Due to its high vitamin A and C content, arugula has been used as a therapeutic food for eye infections and night blindness, and its sharpness and astringency reveals its stimulant, diuretic, and antiscorbutic (effective against scurvy) properties. Many of its modern and traditional uses overlap with dandelion greens, to which it is very similar in taste and nutritional profile. The leaves have also been used topically as a rubefacient (drawing blood to the surface of the skin) to improve circulation.

The fresh leaves of arugula have been consumed and favored as a salad green in Mediterranean countries for centuries. With the growing popularity of the Mediterranean cuisine, its consumption continues to grow in the United States as well as the rest of the world. Arugula is best consumed raw or very lightly cooked, as many of its beneficial compounds (chlorophyll, glucosinolates, and isothiocyanates) degrade quickly when heated.

In India, Pakistan, and Iran, arugula is grown as a commercial oilseed crop. Due to its high erucic acid content, taramira oil and similar oils are used as commercial lubricants and as massage oils. The seed matter left behind after oil processing is used as livestock fodder. Where it is popular, including India, taramira oil also has a widespread culinary use, though it must age for six months after processing to mellow its initial overwhelming acrid taste. Once aged, the oil can be used in salads and for cooking purposes and is a traditional ingredient in pickles and mustard.

Modern Research

As a member of the Brassicaceae family, arugula shares the extensively-studied effects of its relatives, such as broccoli and kale.

Cruciferous vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants and are highly regarded for their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, chemo-preventive, and cardioprotective effects. They have high levels of sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates which, when crushed or chewed, turn into indoles and isothiocyanates. These two bioactive constituents have been shown to be potent cancer-fighters, protecting against many forms of cancers, including breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer.

Arugula can be a valuable addition to the diet of people with Crohn’s disease and other gastrointestinal conditions, providing valuable vitamins, minerals, and insoluble fiber. Those who suffer from Crohn’s disease are at higher risk for vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition as a result of a limited diet; however, in a 2012 clinical study, almost 80% of subjects reported no change in their symptoms after consuming steady amounts of arugula. Though cruciferous vegetables are considered off-limits to people following a low-FODMAP diet (which seeks to eliminate fermentable oglio-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols due to a bacterial imbalance in the gut), arugula was well tolerated and also should be considered as a nutrient-dense addition for people with these sensitivities.


Nutrient Profile


Macronutrient Profile:
(Per 1 cup arugula leaves)

5 calories
0.52 g protein
0.73 g carbohydrate
0.13 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup arugula leaves)

Excellent source of:
Vitamin K: 21.7 mcg (27.13% DV)

Good source of:

Vitamin A: 475 IU (9.5% DV)
Vitamin C: 3 mg (5% DV)
Folate: 19 mcg (4.75% DV)
Vitamin E: 0.09 mg (4.48% DV)
Calcium: 32 mg (3.2% DV)

Also provides:
Magnesium: 9 mg (2.25% DV)
Potassium: 74 mg (2.11% DV)
Iron: 0.29 mg (1.61% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 0.3 g (1.2% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.02 mg (1.18% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.02 mg (1% DV)
Phosphorus: 10 mg (1% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Recipe: Arugula and Walnut Pesto

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnuts halves
  • 2 cups fresh arugula leaves
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

  1. In a dry, nonstick skillet over medium heat, toast walnuts until lightly browned and fragrant. Be careful not to burn. Remove from the heat.
  2. In a food processor, combine arugula, walnuts, and garlic and pulse until roughly chopped. Continue pulsing, drizzling in olive oil in a steady stream until combined. Stir in Parmesan cheese and add salt to taste.
  3. Alternatively, this recipe can be made with a mortar and pestle. Roughly chop the arugula leaves and toast walnuts as described, then combine nuts, salt, and garlic in a mortar and grind until smooth. Then add the cheese, olive oil, and arugula, and continue grinding until smooth.

Food as Medicine: Butternut Squash (Cucurbita moschata)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat

Cucurbita moschata— often referred to as winter or pumpkin squash — is a trailing annual with lobed leaves that produce yellow flowers. Mature fruits that are peanut- or bottle-shaped are harvested for their rich orange flesh and edible seeds. Native to tropical and subtropical America, butternut squash requires warmer climates for cultivation as it is intolerant of cold temperatures.

Curcurbita moschata grows best in a rich and well-drained soil in full sun. It can be stored for extended periods and, in fact, has one of the longest shelf lives of the squash family.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Winter squashes, such as the butternut, are high in complex carbohydrates and provide vitamin C, potassium, iron, riboflavin, and magnesium. Additionally, butternut squash is an excellent source of vitamin A and carotenoids such as α-carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which contribute to its claimed anti-cancer properties. While it is a low-fat food, butternut squash does contain some healthy fats in the form of alpha-linoleic acid, a beneficial omega-3 fatty acid that the body does not produce naturally. Omega-3s possess a variety of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties.

The vitamin C retention in butternut squash after cooking is unusually high compared to other vitamin C-containing vegetables, and this is thought to contribute to its potential antioxidant activity. About 80% of the vitamin C in butternut squash is retained after cooking the pulp for 30 minutes at 95°C (203°F). For comparison, cooking degrades vitamin C content in potatoes by 30%, and, after maintaining heat for one hour, levels decrease by another 10%.

Boiled butternut squash has an intermediate glycemic index value at 66 (compared to the reference glucose reference of 100). Despite its relatively high glycemic index value, butternut squash’s complex carbohydrate content slows the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugars, thereby delaying the release of insulin.

The edible seeds of the squash, which have nutritional value on their own, can be roasted like pumpkin (C. pepo) seeds. Roasting lightly for a short period of time preserves the healthy oils — including linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid, and oleic acid, which is plentiful in olive oil — that make up approximately 75% of the fat found in the seeds. Cucurbita moschata seeds contain a higher amount of carotenoids as well as α-, β-, and γ-tocopherol than C. maxima and other pumpkin seeds. The seeds are a good source of vitamin E, which also may contribute to the plant’s antioxidant activity.

Historical Uses

Cucurbita moschata cultivation dates back more than 10,000 years to Central America. The use of the plant spread to the north and south, with evidence of use from 4,900 BCE in southern Mexico and 3,000 BCE in coastal Peru. Centuries later, Christopher Columbus and other European explorers brought squash from the Americas to Europe.

Squash were initially cultivated for their seeds; in early varieties, the sparse flesh was bitter and inedible. Pumpkin or squash seeds have been used for treating enlarged prostate glands and intestinal parasites.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), squash seeds have been used since at least the 17th century. TCM practitioners consider squash to be a warming food that aids digestion, improves qi (energy) deficiency in the spleen/pancreas, and alleviates pain. Application of fresh squash juice may reduce inflammation and relieve burns, and its slightly acidic nature led to its incorporation as an ingredient in bone marrow or “longevity” soup. In Ayurveda, winter squash has a history of use to reduce vata (conditions that are dry and cold) and pitta (conditions that are inflammatory and hot). Winter squash are considered therapeutic foods beneficial for diabetics due to their complex carbohydrate content.

Modern Research

Butternut squash pulp produced as a byproduct of the manufacturing process is thought to be a potential source for the production of prebiotics used in functional food and nutraceutical products. In 2010, butternut squash pulp oligosaccharides were analyzed to determine their potential for prebiotic production. Prebiotics must withstand digestion to ultimately reach the colon and stimulate the growth of bacteria or microbiota. The oligosaccharides demonstrated resistance to hydrolysis by artificial human gastric juice and α-amylase when compared to inulin, a reference prebiotic. These oligosaccharides also stimulated the growth of lactobacilli in comparison to inulin.

Research on the therapeutic properties of butternut squash has been limited to human cell studies and animal studies. Analyses of bioactive compounds have focused on cucurmosin, which has been isolated from the fleshy part of the fruit. Cucurmosin inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells by inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death). A 2012 study showed that cucurmosin inhibits cell proliferation in a time- and dose-dependent manner and induces apoptosis specifically in human pancreatic cancer BxPC-3 cells. Cucurmosin down-regulates, or decreases the quantity of, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) protein expression, which is associated with overexpression that may promote pancreatic tumor growth and metastasis. Researchers also found that cucurmosin inactivated the PI3K/Akt/mTOR signaling pathway in human pancreatic cancer cells.

In a separate study, human liver carcinoma cells (HepG2 cells) were treated with cucurmosin, which resulted in an increase of cell apoptosis in a concentration-dependent manner. Additional studies, particularly human clinical trials, are needed to assess the potential therapeutic potential of butternut squash in greater detail.

Nutrient Profile


Macronutrient Profile:
(Per 1 cup raw butternut squash cubes)

Calories: 63
Protein: 1.4 g
Carbohydrates: 16.4 g
Fat: 0.14 g

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup raw butternut squash cubes)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin A: 14,882 IU (298% DV)
Vitamin C: 29.4 mg (49% DV)

Very good source of:

Manganese: 0.38 mg (19% DV)
Potassium: 493 mg (14% DV)
Magnesium: 48 mg (12% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.22 mg (11%DV)
Dietary Fiber: 2.8 g (11% DV)

Good source of:

Folate: 38 mcg (9.5% DV)
Thiamin: 0.14 mg (9.3% DV)
Niacin: 1.68 mg (8.4% DV)
Phosphorus: 46 mg (4.6% DV)
Vitamin K: 1.5 mcg (1.9% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.03 mg (1.8% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.


Recipe: Creamy Butternut Squash Soup

Courtesy of Sarah Edwards

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 2 medium butternut squash
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly minced ginger
  • 1/8 cup coconut milk (or more, to taste)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (for garnish)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice butternut squash in half, peel, and scoop out the seeds.
  2. Cut off the bulbous ends where the seeds have been scooped out and place peeled whole cloves of garlic in each cavity. Place squash face down in a large baking dish.
  3. Peel and cut the rest of the squash into large cubes and place in the baking dish with onion and carrot. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Roast for 1 hour until tender.
  4. Heat broth in a large pot over medium heat. Add the butternut squash sections and garlic into the saucepan along with the roasted vegetables and minced ginger, then bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Stir in the coconut milk and allow to cool slightly. Blend the soup in batches in a blender or in the pot with an immersion blender until thick and creamy. Garnish with cilantro or roasted butternut squash seeds.

Food as Medicine: Sesame (Sesamum indicum, Pedaliaceae)

Sesamum indicum (Pedaliaceae) is an annual flowering plant with fuzzy, slender, oblong leaves that are arranged opposite to one another on the stem. The plant reaches an average of two to four feet (0.6-1.2 meters) in height and produces small, bell-shaped pink, violet, or white flowers arranged closely to the stem. The plant produces oblong seed capsules that contain many small oval-shaped seeds.1 There are three color varieties of seeds: black, white, and red/brown. Sesamum indicum grows in well-drained soil in warm or hot climates and does not tolerate frost or poorly draining soil. It is, however, a robust plant that will grow in poor soil, drought, and high heat conditions where most other crops will not.

While the leaves of the plant are also edible, the sesame plant is grown primarily for its seeds, and the oil pressed from the seeds is an important commercial and medicinal product. Sesame seeds are possibly one of the oldest seed crops known to humankind. The exact origins of domestication are uncertain, but it is believed that sesame originated in Africa, and its cultivation and use spread to Egypt, India, the Middle East, and China. Currently, S. indicum is cultivated in dry tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, and South America.


Phytochemicals and Constituents

Although small in size, the sesame seed is densely packed with nutrients. Sesame seeds are rich in protein (approximately 20-25% by weight) and oil (approximately 50% by weight). Sesame additionally contains fiber, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and minerals, such as copper, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. Sesame oil contains approximately 38% monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and approximately 44% polyunsaturated fat (PUFA). The unsaturated fatty acids oleic acid and linoleic acid account for the majority of the oil weight of the seed (more than 800 g/kg). Sesame seeds are low in saturated fat. PUFAs have anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, antiarrhythmic, lipid-lowering, and vasodilatory properties.

Sesame seed may be of particular interest to those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets due to its amino acid and calcium contents. Unusual for a plant-based protein source, sesame has a mostly complete amino acid profile, missing only lysine. Sesame is rich in the amino acid methionine, which is often the missing amino acid in legume-based diets. Calcium is one of the predominant minerals found in sesame, along with manganese, phosphorus, and iron. One ounce (28 grams) of whole toasted sesame seeds contains approximately 28% of the daily value of calcium based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In comparison, one cup of nonfat dairy milk contains approximately 31% of the daily value of calcium. However, the bioavailability of the calcium content in plant foods is very different than that of animal-based products. Although the whole sesame seed contains a high amount of calcium, the degree to which the body is able to absorb this calcium is not well-studied.

Other constituents present in sesame include oxalic and phytic acids. These compounds may interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients. In addition, consuming high amounts of oxalates, which are derivatives of oxalic acid, may be problematic for individuals with a history of oxalate kidney stones.

While sesame has robust macronutrient and micronutrient profiles, other bioactive compounds present in the plant that have caught the attention of researchers. These compounds include phytosterols and a group of antioxidants known as lignans. Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow down the damage that reactive oxygen species (ROSs) can inflict on cells. Phytosterols possess similar chemical structures to cholesterol, which is not found in plants. When present in sufficient amounts in the diet, phytosterols have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. The fat-soluble lignans (e.g., sesamin, sesaminol, sesamolinol, and sesamolin) are the most studied compounds in the sesame plant. Lignan glycosides, in which a sugar molecule is attached to a lignan, are also present in sesame, but are found only in the whole seed, and not in sesame oil. Although the lignan glycosides have no direct antioxidant role, these compounds within sesame seeds can be converted in the body to form sesaminol and thereby function as antioxidants.


Historical and Commercial Uses

The use of sesame as a food, medicine, and component of spiritual or ritual practices dates back more than 4,000 years in Egypt and the Middle East, spreading from these regions to India and Europe. In the Hindu tradition, the sesame seed represents immortality. In the Babylonian Empire (located in present-day Iraq; 18th century to 6th century BCE), sesame oil was used to make perfumes and medicine. Records reveal that ancient Egyptians also used sesame as a medicine, and the oil was used for ceremonial purification in 1500 BCE. Europeans first encountered sesame seeds when they were imported from India during the first century CE, and sesame seeds were brought to the United States from Africa in the 17th century.

Various preparations of the plant have been used for medicinal purposes. In Ayurveda, a traditional medicine system of India that has been practiced for millennia, powdered seeds were given orally in combination with a warm sitz bath containing a handful of bruised seeds for treatment of amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea. Topically, a poultice of seeds was applied to ulcers, burns, and scalds, and sesame seed paste was combined with ghee (clarified butter) to treat bleeding hemorrhoids. Sesame oil was commonly used as a base for perfume oils for anointing the body and hair and traditionally used as a hair wash to promote hair growth.

In traditional Chinese medicine, sesame is known as a yin tonic, which moistens dry tissues and increases body fluids. Due to these properties, the seeds were used to promote lactation in breastfeeding mothers. In Europe, the oil was rubbed onto eyelids or dropped into eyes for eye complaints and also used internally for treating gonorrhea. The leaves of the sesame plant were decocted and consumed to resolve bowel afflictions, such as dysentery and cholera.

In addition to its traditional medicinal uses, S. indicum continues to be an important food and lends itself to being prepared and used in a wide variety of ways. Grown predominately for sesame oil, the seeds themselves can be eaten raw or roasted.14When the seeds are hulled, they can be easily crushed into a flour or ground further into a paste. Hulled seeds are widely used in their ground form as a paste in Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. In Europe and North America, the seeds are mainly used for bakery products, such as sesame seed buns.

In most cultures, the seeds have traditionally been roasted or baked before consumption or prior to oil extraction, a practice that enhances the sweet, nutty flavor and aroma of the seed and produces darker-colored oil. Traditionally, the sesame seeds are cold-pressed for oil. In European and North American cultures, a hot-pressed and refined oil are more highly desired, since this creates a colorless and neutral oil, which is better suited for cooking and use in salad dressing. The young leaves of the plant can be eaten in stews, a practice seen in Africa today. In Korea, the leaves are used to make a kind of wrap eaten with meats and other vegetables. The sesame cake (leftover plant material after the oil has been removed from the seeds) is used for livestock feed and can serve as a subsistence food in times of scarcity. In African and Asian cuisines, the seeds are used in both sweet and savory dishes. With globalization, many cultural foods have traveled from their continents of origin to become commonly consumed in the United States and elsewhere. For example, tahini, or ground sesame seed paste, has emerged from the Middle Eastern culinary tradition as a familiar grocery store item in the United States.

Modern Research

Current research investigating the potential efficacy of S. indicum and its constituents covers a wide range of applications. Research on sesame’s lignan content and inherent antioxidant potential is most prolific, specifically on the synergy of action of the lignans in combination with vitamin E. Additionally, there were a number of studies on S. indicum published in 2016, adding to the body of evidence on the efficacy of therapeutic use and effective dosage.

Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors and Serum Lipid Profile

Oxidative stress and inflammation play a large role in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. A cardioprotective diet and exercise are an important part of prevention and treatment. Two types of fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, are present in the sesame plant and have been reported to lower cholesterol. Other potential mechanisms for the cardioprotective effects of sesame have been described, and sesame oil may have multiple constituents that affect the atherogenic process in various ways.

The fat-soluble lignans in sesame may affect fat in the bloodstream and the ability of the liver to process fat, particularly triglycerides. A group of researchers cultivated a sesame variety that contained two times more sesamin and sesamolin than conventional sesame to observe the effect of these two compounds on health parameters. The results showed that consumption of these seeds compared to seeds of a conventional sesame variety effectively increased the activity of enzymes located in the liver and involved in fatty acid oxidation. This increase was correlated with a decrease in serum triglyceride levels. The researchers noted that it is unclear if these effects are solely a result of the difference in concentration in the fat-soluble lignans or if other compounds may be involved in the observed physiological activity of the seeds.

A 2016 systematic review examined scientific literature to discern the effect of dietary intake of sesame seed and its derivatives on the lipid profile and blood pressure of hypertensive and dyslipidemic individuals. Of the seven studies that fit the review criteria, most were not randomized, and those that were did not describe the blinding of participants or personnel. Five clinical trials on patients diagnosed with hypertension found significant results for the reduction in both systolic blood pressure (SBP) and/or diastolic blood pressure (DBP). Of the three studies that included a lipid profile, two found significant reductions in total cholesterol (TC) and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-c) levels and one found a significant increase in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-c) concentrations in the sesame treatment groups.

The dosage and administration of sesame to medicated hypertensive patients varied across studies. Positive outcomes for SBP (reduction by approximately 3%) and DBP (reduction by approximately 2%) were noted with as little as 7.6 grams per day of encapsulated black sesame flour, the use of sesame oil for 45-60 days, or 60 grams of encapsulated sesamin taken for four weeks.

Two studies examining the use of sesame flour in individuals with dyslipidemia found that it positively impacted lipid profiles. The exact mechanisms are still being studied. The reviewers noted, however, that further research with low risk of bias is necessary to obtain more conclusive results since the seven clinical trials reviewed contained a high risk of bias.

Both sesame seed and sesame oil have been studied for their cardioprotective benefits. Daily supplementation with sesame oil was shown to increase flow-mediated dilation levels, suggestive of an improvement in the vascular function, after meals when compared to supplementation with corn (Zea mays, Poaceae) or olive (Olea europaea, Oleaceae) oils in hypertensive men receiving medication. Furthermore, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial showed supplementation with sesame paste ground from unhulled seeds improved lipid profiles and atherogenic lipid parameters in patients receiving treatment for type 2 diabetes. The researchers concluded that in addition to drug treatment, dietary modification using functional foods, such as sesame seeds, may have beneficial effects for the prevention of cardiovascular and diabetes complications. Additionally, a study using a substitution of 35 grams per day of sesame oil as the only edible oil for 45 days in hypertensive women resulted in significant decrease in serum TC, and SBP and DBP. However, this study was uncontrolled.

Neurodegenerative Conditions

While the underlying mechanisms remain unclear, sesame’s strong antioxidant capacity may be protective against neurodegenerative disorders. Antioxidant nutrients from food may play an important role in lessening the consequences of oxidative stress in cerebral ischemia (a type of stroke) and recirculation brain injury. Sesamin and sesamol have demonstrated the ability to elevate levels of alpha-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E) in the plasma, liver, and brain of rats, displaying an inhibitory effect on endogenous lipid peroxidation as well as oxidative DNA damage in rat plasma and liver and protective effects of hypoxia in neurons. Based on the strong antioxidant activities of sesame, it could be considered neuroprotective against cerebral ischemia and stroke, though further studies need to be conducted in support of this.


Consumer Considerations

Although not common, there is the potential for an allergic reaction upon consumption of sesame seeds or sesame oil. Since allergic reactions are mainly due to a protein found in the seed, there may be no reaction or less of a reaction to the oil, with the exception of cold-pressed oil. Cold-pressed oil may still contain varying amounts of protein.

Individuals who are predisposed to kidney stones or are chronically undernourished in calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus may exercise caution and consider total dietary intake of foods high in oxalic acid. Sesame seeds contain 1-2% oxalic acid, which may interfere with calcium, magnesium, and protein absorption in the body. Additionally, certain types of kidney stones are composed of oxalic acid. It is important to note that the hull of the seed contains the highest amount of oxalic acid. The presence of oxalic acid can be reduced significantly through processing of the seeds and in particular through sprouting the seeds prior to consumption. Cooking and toasting the seeds before consumption or pressing the seed for oil also can reduce levels of oxalic acid and maximize the bioavailability of sesame’s beneficial constituents. Additionally, some bioactive constituents of sesame are found in highest amounts in sesame oil produced from toasted or otherwise heated sesame seeds.

Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 tablespoon [approx. 9 grams] sesame seeds)

52 calories

1.6 g protein

2.11 g carbohydrate

4.47 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 tablespoon [approx. 9 grams] sesame seeds)

Very good source of:

Manganese: 0.22 mg (11% DV)

Good source of:

Calcium: 88 mg (8.8% DV)

Magnesium: 32 mg (8% DV)

Iron: 1.31 mg (7.2% DV)

Phosphorus: 57 mg (5.7% DV)

Also, provides:

Thiamin: 0.07 mg (4.7% DV)

Dietary Fiber: 1.1 g (4.4% DV)

Molybdenum: 2.66 mcg (3.6% DV)

Vitamin B6: 0.07 mg (3.5% DV)

Niacin: 0.41 mg (2.1% DV)

Folate: 9 mcg (2.3% DV)

Potassium: 42 mg (1.2% DV)

Riboflavin: 0.02 mg (1.2% DV)

Trace Amounts

Vitamin E: 0.02 mg (0.1% DV)

Vitamin A: 1 IU (0.02% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Sticky Sesame Bars

Courtesy of Camilla V. Saulsbury

Ingredients:

Bars:

  • Coconut or vegetable oil for greasing
  • 2 cups nuts (e.g., cashews, peanuts, pistachios, pecans)
  • 1 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup chia seeds or poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup agave nectar or honey
  • 1/3 cup natural, unsweetened nut or seed butter (e.g., tahini, sunflower, or peanut)
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil, warmed until melted (do not substitute with vegetable oil)
  • 1 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Chocolate Drizzle:

  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil, warmed until melted
  • 2 tablespoons agave nectar or honey
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened, natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)

Directions:

  1. Line an eight-inch square baking pan with foil or parchment paper and grease the pan with coconut oil or vegetable oil.
  2. Place the nuts, sesame seeds, and chia seeds in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the agave nectar, nut or seed butter, oil, vanilla, and salt. Process, using on/off pulses, until the mixture is blended and begins to stick together and clump on the sides of the bowl.
  3. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Place a large piece of parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap (lightly greased with coconut or vegetable oil) atop the bar mixture and use it to spread and flatten the mixture evenly in the pan; leave the paper or plastic wrap to cover. Place the mixture in the freezer for 30 minutes.
  4. To prepare the chocolate drizzle: Mix the oil, agave nectar, and cocoa powder in a small bowl until blended. Remove the bar mixture from the freezer, uncover, and decoratively drizzle or spread with the chocolate mixture. Refrigerate for at least four hours or place in the freezer for one hour until the mixture is firm.
  5. Using the liner, lift the mixture from the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 20 bars. Store wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator for one week or freezer for up to three months.