Sesame seeds are popular in the kitchen and offer a host of health benefits as well. They come from one of the oldest cultivated plants with a history dating back thousands of years. In the Hindu culture, sesame seeds were a symbol of immortality; the ancient Egyptians and Persians used them in flour. Today they are used as a condiment in China, India and Japan.
You may find sesame seeds topping bread or sprinkled throughout a variety of Asian dishes. Sesame seed paste is the main ingredient in tahini and halvah,1 both Middle Eastern dishes. The seed comes from an annual herb that produces flowers with seed-containing pods.2
Once matured, the hulls are removed and the seeds may be toasted, eaten raw or pressed for sesame oil. There are white and black varieties of sesame seeds with widely different tastes. While white seeds have a more delicate flavor, the black seeds have a stronger aroma and are often paired with other bold ingredients.
However, many choose the seeds based on appearance in the dish rather than flavor. Sesame seeds have a nutty flavor that increases with toasting, which may be done by dry toasting on the stovetop or baking in the oven. Sesame seed oil is popular in Asian cooking and comes in colors ranging from light brown to dark reddish-brown.3
The oil is usually used as a finish to a hot or cold dish, rather than for frying. It has a long shelf life, as light-colored oil may be stored for up to a year in a cool, dark place. Toasted sesame oil may last for many months, especially when stored in the refrigerator.
Sesame Seeds May Reduce Knee Pain from Osteoarthritis
Past studies have identified two anti-inflammatory compounds found in sesame seeds — sesamin and sesamol. The authors of animal studies have suggested these compounds suppress the inflammatory response. One team of researchers undertook a study of the effect sesame seeds may have on patients suffering from osteoarthritis (OA).
This condition commonly affects the weight-bearing joints in the body, including the knees, hips, lower back, neck and small bones in the hand. Injury or repeated wear may damage the cartilage between the bones, ultimately resulting in bone rubbing on bone. The risk of this degenerative type of joint disease has risen dramatically since 1940.
Loss of joint flexibility, bone spurs and joint swelling lead to a painful condition now affecting more than 30 million U.S. adults, with many turning to prescription painkillers to alleviate their discomfort. Researchers have found the incidence of opioid use is higher in those with OA who are younger and suffer from depression.5
A team from Iran6 enrolled 50 patients with diagnosed OA of the knee and divided them into two groups. The 25 in the control group received standard treatment and those in the intervention group received 40 grams per day of ground sesame seeds over the course of two months, as an adjunct to standard drug therapy.
Analysis was completed on 22 in the intervention group and 23 in the control group using standardized clinical assessments, including serum measurement of malondialdehyde (MDA). This is a toxic end product of peroxidation associated with the destruction of cartilage collagen.
There was a significant decrease in serum MDA in the treatment group after two months of ingesting sesame seed powder. The researchers concluded there was a positive effect using sesame to improve clinical symptoms in those suffering with OA of the knee. They wrote:7
“Therefore, sesame seed has a potential ability in reducing inflammatory status of osteoarthritis. According to our results, sesame seed is a natural and safe substance that may have beneficial effects in patients with knee OA and it may provide new complementary and adjunctive treatment in these patients.”
Topical Application of Sesame Oil After Trauma
The topical application of sesame oil may have similar benefits to those who have undergone physical trauma, with physical trauma being a major source of morbidity and disability in those under 45.8 Researchers acknowledge that pain level experiences may be different among individuals, even those undergoing the same traumatic injury.
Scientists leading this study9 sought to answer the question of whether the topical application of sesame oil could have an effect on pain severity and the frequency of using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The reason was that NSAIDs and opioids are the current drugs of choice for mild to severe traumatic pain.
Using a randomized clinical trial involving 150 patients who had experienced blunt trauma to their upper and/or lower extremities, the researchers collected data using a visual analog scale and questionnaire. They randomly placed 75 in the control group and 75 in the intervention group.
Both groups received routine care, and the intervention group received an additional topical application of sesame oil. The severity of pain and the frequency of NSAID use was assessed at intervals during the first 10 days after trauma.
Based on their sample testing there was a significant difference between the two groups in their report of pain severity and the frequency in which they requested NSAIDs, particularly beginning in the fourth day after intervention.
The researchers concluded that topical application is a strong complementary strategy for pain relief in those who may have experienced upper or lower extremity trauma related to its “low-cost, easy usage and lack of adverse effects.”
Anti-Inflammatory Effect May Also Reduce Blood Pressure
In the interventions for OA, the participants consumed 40 grams of powdered sesame seeds each day. Sesame seeds have a density of 0.61g/cm3.10
However, researchers have found as little as 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) of sesame seeds may have a modest effect on blood pressure. In one study11 using a double-blind, crossover, placebo-controlled trial, participants with mild high blood pressure consumed 60 mg of sesamin capsules for four weeks. A control group received a placebo.
The subjects were middle-aged and matched by age and body mass index between the intervention group and the control group. After four weeks, the groups switched.
The researchers found a decrease in blood pressure in the participants when they received sesamin but little change with the placebo. The researchers said the reduction in blood pressure “may be meaningful to prevent cardiovascular diseases.”
More Sesame Seeds Health Benefits
In addition to all of these benefits, sesame seeds are an excellent source of nutrients. The sesamin and sesamolin belong to a group of beneficial fibers called lignans with a history of preventing high blood pressure and protecting the liver.12
One-quarter cup of the seeds provides 163% of your daily value of copper and is a good source of manganese, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. The high amount of copper may contribute to the effectiveness that sesame seeds have in reducing some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Other health benefits have included speeding wound healing with the topical application and boosting antioxidants to help combat stress-related diseases. Sesame seeds have also been used in industrial manufacturing, including the preparation of cosmetics, paints and lubricants.
How to Incorporate Sesame Seeds at Home
The extraction of the oil from the seeds should be a simple cold-press process as demonstrated in this short video. In fact, with your own home press, you may also produce organic oils at home, bypassing the dangerous manufacturing process undergone by those sold at the store.
The combination of being high in omega-6 fats and lectins means you’ll need to eat sesame seeds in moderation. Make sure you balance how much you eat against the number of omega-3 fats in your diet and help reduce the number of lectins you consume by soaking the seeds overnight or sprouting them.
If you have an allergy to sesame seeds, do not consume them and do not use sesame seed oil as both can lead to allergic reactions. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should use extreme caution when using the oil or consuming the seeds as they may have hormone-inducing effects that can trigger uterine contractions.
Common symptoms of an allergy may range from mild itching to anaphylaxis. Some researchers report that those with allergies to nuts like walnuts and peanuts may also have an allergic reaction to sesame seeds and sesame oil.
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