Although many plants bear seeds can be eaten, only a handful have become food staples in their own right. Some, such as pumpkin seeds, comprise just part of the plant that can be eaten. Others, like peas and sunflowers, are the only edible parts of the plant, and the seeds make those plants the important food crops they are.
Beans and Peas
Although few people stop to think about it, the dried beans found in the supermarket aisle are actually the seeds of future bean plants. Kidney beans, pinto beans, soybeans, and a host of other legume seeds, including peas, when allowed to dry inside the pod, become either planting seeds or excellent foods. Virtually all bean plants, even the ones grown for harvesting dried beans, can also be harvested and cooked while fresh. Legumes such as lupines and peanuts also produce edible seeds.
Seeds of the cereal grasses make up a huge portion of the world’s food supply. Rice, oats, corn, wheat, sorghum, rye and barley all fall into this category of grasses with edible seeds. The seeds are often ground into flour or processed in some other way (corn oil, for example, or malted barley used to make beer). Other grain-like crops which produce edible seeds but don’t fall into the grass family are known as “pseudocereals.” These include quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, flax and chia seeds.
The classic poppy-seed muffin or bagel depends on the Papaver somniferum flowers for its seed topping. Infamous for being used to make opium, poppies have been developed that are “low morphine” varieties, the seeds of which bakers use to top muffins, cakes and breads. Poppy seeds also yield cooking oil.
Many Americans limit their consumption of pumpkin seeds to the Halloween season. But in Mexico, “pepitas,” as they are called, are eaten rear-round, often heavily spiced. To prepare pumpkin seeds, simply scoop out the pulpy mass of seeds from inside any pumpkin, remove as much pulp as possible, spread the seeds to dry overnight, and roast them in a low oven (about 175 degrees) for 20 minutes. Salt and season to taste. Pumpkin seeds contain significant amounts of magnesium, iron, zinc and protein, and studies are underway to determine if they may be effective in preventing prostate cancer, bone loss, arthritis, high cholesterol and anxiety disorder.
Botanically speaking, many nuts are the edible seeds of the nut tree, although some nuts are classed as fruits instead. Trees considered to bear edible seeds that are nuts include almonds, walnuts, cashews, pine trees (pine nuts) and pistachios.
The Sesamum indicum plant, a flowering tropical annual, yields seeds that can be pressed to make cooking oil or added whole to breads and rolls. They can also be ground and made into tahini paste, a staple of Middle Eastern cooking and an essential ingredient in hummus. In Charleston, South Carolina, they are called “bennes” and used to make the classic sweet confection known as a “benne wafer.” Historians believe that “bennes” came to the U.S. with the African slaves, and benne wafers emerged from that history.
One of the most popular seed snacks, sunflower seeds are sold in a variety of ways, including unshelled and unprocessed and shelled, roasted and salted. According the National Sunflower Association, American Indians first discovered the tasty, high-protein seeds from the native flower. Spanish explorers carried a taste for the treat back with them to Europe. Russians and Turks, in particular, share America’s love for sunflower seeds. Growers use the striped seeds for snacks, or what they call “confections.” Smaller seeds become bird food. Manufacturers of sunflower oil use black seeds.