This week ends my series on superfoods. It’s been a long journey, but look at all of the foods we’ve covered! I’ve learned a lot myself about the various nutritional components that make so many foods so good for us. I hope this information has been helpful for you and that maybe you’ve been inspired to try some foods that you haven’t eaten before. And now, a final look at two foods in the fats category: sesame seeds and olives. (Check out “Food Group Superfoods: Fats (Part 10)” for information about pumpkin seeds and avocado.)
What they offer: Sesame seeds date back to ancient times, perhaps as far back as 1600 BC, and they likely originated in India. A staple in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, sesame seeds are thought to be one of the first condiments ever used. Sesame seeds were prized for their oil, but were also used in baked goods; a drawing on an Egyptian tomb shows a baker adding sesame seeds to bread.
These little seeds were brought to the United States in the 17th century by African slaves (who called them benne seeds); as a result, sesame seeds have become popular in Southern cuisine.
Today, the largest producers of sesame seeds are India, China, and Mexico. Sesame plants can grow up to 7 feet tall, with pods that form within white or lavender blossoms; the pods, which contain the seeds, burst open at the slightest touch when the seeds are mature. Interestingly, the term “open sesame” from the story Arabian Nights refers to the sesame seed bursting open when it reaches maturity. The seeds themselves come in a variety of colors, ranging from ivory and yellow to red, brown, and black.
Nutrition-wise, sesame seeds are rich in copper, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, and vitamin B1. They also contain sesamin and sesamolin, lignans (beneficial chemical compounds found in plants) that help to lower cholesterol and that may help fight breast and prostate cancers. In animals, sesamin has been shown to lower blood pressure. Speaking of cholesterol, sesame seeds are an excellent source of phytosterols (another potentially beneficial plant-based chemical), which also work to lower cholesterol. (Conclusion: Sesame seeds should be a staple of a heart-healthy diet!)
Nutrition info: One tablespoon of sesame seeds contains roughly 50 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrate, 1 gram of fiber, and 4 grams of fat.
What to look for/how to use: Sesame seeds are usually available in packages and are sometimes sold in bulk. If buying in bulk, inspect the seeds for any insects and moisture, and make sure the seeds don’t smell rancid. Keep seeds refrigerated for up to six months, frozen for up to one year, or in a closed container in a cool, dry place for up to three months.
Bring out the flavor of the seeds by roasting them at 350°F for 5–10 minutes. Add seeds to any of your baked goods, such as muffins and cookies. Sprinkle on vegetables or stir into salad dressing. Use the seeds in a stir-fry chicken dish with ginger, soy sauce, and Asian-style vegetables. Sesame paste, called tahini, is used to make hummus, but can also be spread on bread or crackers.
What they offer: Olives, of course, are prized for making olive oil, one of the most heart-healthy oils available. Olives are the fruit of the olive tree. Like sesame seeds, olives are one of the oldest foods known. Likely originating in Asia, they’re mentioned in the Bible and in Greek mythology and are depicted in Egyptian art.
Olives have become a symbol of peace and wisdom. They were brought to America during the 15th and 16th centuries by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and were introduced to California in the 18th century by missionaries. Most of the world’s olives and olive oil come from Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
Unlike most fruits, olives can’t be eaten straight from the tree. They’re extremely bitter and must undergo some processing before being palatable. Some olives are harvested when green, or unripe, whereas others are picked when black. There are many varieties of olives; popular varieties include Manzanilla, Mission, Ascolano, Barouni, Picholine, and Sevillano (the most common variety grown in California). Olives and their oil are rich in monounsaturated fat and vitamin E, both of which promote to heart health. They also contain polyphenols and flavonoids, antioxidants that have an anti-inflammatory effect. Olives and olive oil may also lower the risk for cancer and reduce blood pressure, too.
Nutrition info: Ten green olives contain about 40 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrate, and 4 grams of fat. Ten large black (California) olives contain roughly 50 calories, 3 grams of carbohydrate, and 5 grams of fat.
What to look for/how to use: You can buy olives in jars and cans, but many stores now sell olives in barrels or tubs where you can select your own. Some olives are not pitted, and some may be stuffed with pimento, garlic, or almonds, for example. Keep olives stored in a container in the refrigerator. Add them to green salads and chicken or tuna salad. Throw some into your pasta dishes. Blend up some pitted olives in a food processor along with olive oil, garlic, and black pepper to make a tapenade (an olive spread that goes well with bread, crackers, poultry, or fish). Serve olives as part of an appetizer tray. But remember that they do contain a lot of fat, so go easy with them if calories are a concern.