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Can eating sunflower seeds be bad for you?

Ten Health Risks and Dangers Associated with Sunflower Seeds

In general, sunflower seeds are not considered as an unhealthy or harmful food. Below are some possible health risks listed:

1. Calories and Weight Gain

Sunflower seeds are high-calorie and high-fat food (1).

  • One ounce (28 grams) of dry roasted sunflower seed kernels (hulled — without hulls) contains 165 Calories.
  • One half cup (64 grams) contains 372 Calories.

Sunflower seeds by themselves are not fattening, but eating them in large amounts can add to weight gain.

2. Salt

One half cup of salted sunflower seeds may contain about one gram of salt (2), so individuals on a low-sodium diet may need to avoid them.

3. Mouth Sores, Enamel Loss

  • Grinding whole sunflower seeds with the teeth can cause gum sores.
  • In this Pakistani investigation, consumption of dry roasted sunflower seeds was associated with the higher rates of damage of the tooth enamel.

4. Epiglottitis

Shells could theoretically stick in your throat and cause inflammation of the epiglottis (the fold that covers the voice box).

Sunflower seed shell picture

Picture 1. Sunflower seed or its shell shell can stick behind the epiglottis (source: Flickr.com, Creative Commons Licence)

swallowing sunflower seeds

Picture 2. Sunflower seeds can get stuck above the epiglottis or enter the windpipe (red arrows)
(adapted from Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence)

5. Aspiration During a Baseball Game

In y. 2010 in Northern Virginia in the United States, a baseball player was hit by a ball in the throat while chewing sunflower seeds. He aspirated on some seeds, what triggered cardiac arrest; he died later in the hospital (18).

6. Stomach Ache, Upset Stomach, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Both shelled and unshelled sunflower seeds are high in soluble fiber (1,17), which can cause excessive bloating, abdominal pain and flatulence in some people.
  • Both shelled and unshelled sunflower seeds are high in insoluble fiber (1,17), which may trigger diarrhea in some individuals with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (D-IBS), according to their beliefs.

7. Sunflower Seed Shells, Bezoars and Constipation

Eating large amounts of sunflower seeds with shells at once may cause severe constipation (obstipation, impaction) and formation of bezoar (a clump of undigested material) in the rectum, which may need to be removed under general anesthesia using proctoscopy (3).

Seed bezoar in the colon, CT image

Picture 3. CT image of the seed bezoar in the colon (source: Ijri.org)

8. Allergies

  • Sunflower seed dust may trigger allergic reaction or anaphylactic reaction or development of chronic asthma in sensitive people who, for example, clean bird cages (4,5).
  • Eating sunflower seeds, which may contain high amounts of nickel, can trigger eczema in individuals with nickel allergy (19).
  • Due to mixing during manufacturing, certain sunflower seeds sold in markets may be contaminated with soy allergens (6).
  • Individuals who are allergic to sunflower seeds only rarely react to sunflower oil (7).
  • Cross-reactivity between sunflower seeds and pistachios, peanuts and walnuts (8), mustard seed (9), certain fruits (10) and ragweed pollen (11) has been reported.

9. Migraine

Some sources (13,14) mention sunflower seeds as a possible migraine trigger. The supposed triggering substance is tyramine (14).

10. Manganese Overdose

Individuals with a genetic disease called “Dystonia/Parkinsonism, Hypermanganesemia, Polycythemia, and Chronic Liver Disease” should avoid sunflower seeds because they are high in manganese (15).

Oxalate Kidney Stones?

For individuals with oxalate kidney stones, doctors recommend low-oxalate diet with less than 50 milligrams oxalates per day. One half cup of sunflower seeds may contain up to 20 milligrams oxalates (16).

Addiction?

Some individuals have reported getting addicted with dill-flavored sunflower seeds.

Aluminum?

Some Chinese manufacturers add aluminum and talc powder to sunflower seeds to enhance flavor. Aluminum toxicity has not been reported, though.

Diverticulitis?

Some doctors recommend avoiding eating sunflower and other seeds to individuals with intestinal diverticulosis, but the association between eating sunflower seeds and diverticulitis has not been proven (12).

Mouth Cancer?

Cancer.org does NOT mention sunflower seeds as a risk of oral cancer.

Vitamin B6 Toxicity?

According to Linus Pauling Institute, vitamin B6 toxicity caused by any food, including sunflower seeds, has not been reported. One cup of dehulled sunflower seeds contains about 1 mg vitamin B6, and the tolerable amount of vitamin B6 for adults is 100 mg per day and for children 4-13 years old 40-60 mg per day. In summary, it seems that unsalted, shelled sunflower seeds have less side effects than salted whole seeds.

Possible Health Benefits of Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds are high in:

  • Monounsaturated fats
  • Proteins
  • Calories
  • Vitamin E
  • Selenium
  • Vitamins from B complex

References:

  1. USDA.gov  (Sunflower seed kernels calorie and nutrient content)
  2. USDA.gov  (Salted sunflower seeds)
  3. PubMed  (Unshelled sunflower seeds and constipation)
  4. PubMed  (Airborne allergy to sunflower dust)
  5. PubMed  (Anaphylactic reaction)
  6. FDA.gov  (Soy allergens)
  7. Aaaai.org  (Allergens in sunflower oil)
  8. Aaaai.org  (Nuts cross-reactivity)
  9. Allallergy.net  (Mustard seed cross-reactivity)
  10. Wiley.com  (Cross-reactivity between seeds and fruits)
  11. Acaai.org  (Ragweed seed cross-reactivity)
  12. Niddk.nih.gov  (Diverticulosis)
  13. Berkeley.edu  (Migraine triggers)
  14. Mgwater.com  (Sunflower seeds and migraine)
  15. Nih.gov/books  (Dystonia/Parkinsonism, Hypermanganesemia, Polycythemia, and Chronic Liver Disease)
  16. Ohf.org  (Oxalate content of foods)
  17. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis (2002) 15, 715-723
  18. Loudountimes.com  (A baseball player dies from aspiration of sunflower seeds)
  19. PMC  (Nickel allergy)

Published on June 26th 2013 by  under Nutrition.
Article was last reviewed on 28th January 2014.

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