Food Watch: Sunflower Seeds (in the shell)

Eating sunflower seeds in the shell, or “spitz” as most of us seed-munchers call them, is probably most common in the summer. I used to eat these incessantly at my husband’s baseball games.

I’d eat them like a chipmunk and gnaw away for hours!

Today I rarely eat them.

Recently, I went on a road trip and decided to grab a couple of big bags of sunflower seeds. I didn’t think much about them.

I didn’t consciously make a decision about the health quality of the seeds, I just sort of grabbed them, and maybe subconsciously thought they were ok, health-wise. Not perfect, but ok.

Well, I was wrong. 

I knew the flavored ones probably had some unhealthy ingredients, but honestly, I just DID NOT look. I was focused on the fun and planning of the road trip. It was only after we came home that I noticed the ingredients.

For this Food Watch, I’m NOT profiling a variety of brands….just the most common one that the majority of people are familiar with: the Spitz brand. In fact, this is the only brand I ever see when I’m in the grocery store or at a convenience store.

I’ll stick to the two most popular flavors, which are the ones I took on our road trip.

Seed duo

Sunflower seeds have some healthy qualities.

They have the “good” fats which are intact, in the whole food, which is the seed. Yay! They also have fibre, which is also a fantastic ingredient for our bodies. Sunflower seeds contain vitamins and minerals too. These tasty seeds definitely fit into the healthy category of foods.

So, what’s the problem?

First, let’s start with the ingredients of this packaged food.

Ingredients duo

-both have sunflower seeds as their first ingredient…well thank goodness!

-both the salted and seasoned flavor contain oil. The salted flavor has only two ingredients with vegetable oil being #2.

The seasoned flavor lists oil as its last ingredient. I’m assuming the company uses oil to help the salt and other seasonings stick to the shells and for roasting.

A good question to ask, however, is… What exactly is “vegetable oil”? From what vegetable does the oil come? Is it corn oil? Canola oil? Soybean oil?

We should be told exactly what type of oil we’re eating. Isn’t that what the ingredient list is for? …for consumers to make an educated decision about what we want to put in our bodies?

-the seasoned flavor sunflower seeds state that ingredient # 2 is seasoning…kind of what we’d expect. When we see “seasoning” though, we probably think of spices and herbs like chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt etc.

However, when you have a close look at the things listed in brackets that show us exactly what “seasoning” is, you might be surprised at what you find.

In addition to the expected first “seasoning” ingredient of salt, you’ll see the following ingredients:

—–second “seasoning” ingredient: sugar: this one surprised me. Not healthy.

—– third “seasoning” ingredient: spice: what the heck is “spice”? Be specific and tell us what kinds of spices are being used.

The fact that the company doesn’t tell us and uses a vague word, like “spice” makes me suspicious. I’m left to assume it’s not healthy if I’m not being told, precisely, what the spice is.

—–fourth “seasoning” ingredient: dehydrated onion and garlic: not too bad. I don’t know the process involved in dehydrating the garlic or the onion, but for now, I’m not worried about this ingredient.

—–fifth “seasoning” ingredient: cornstarch: It’s starch pulled from the endosperm (Read Food Watch: Cereals-Part 1 for more detailed information about the parts of whole grains) of the corn. Corn starch is used as a thickener.

My problem is that the corn used to make the cornstarch was most likely GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), so not great. If the corn was not GMO, it would be listed specifically as “non-GMO corn” or “organic corn”.

Science Daily defines GMO as “A genetically modified organism…whose genetic material has been altered using techniques in genetics generally known as recombinant DNA technology.”

There is much debate out there about GMO foods, but from my perspective, GMO food is not found in nature, so it’s probably not a good idea to eat it. As little as possible.

—–sixth “seasoning” ingredient: dextrose: This is another word for sugar. I’ve read that most dextrose comes from corn because corn is a cheap source. This leads to the same GMO issue discussed above.

Meriam Webster states dextrose is, “a kind of sugar found in fruits, plants etc. : a form of glucose”.

The Canadian government lists dextrose as a sugar-based ingredient that is a sweetening agent.

It’s sugar. Plain and simple. We have to look at industry jargon, and other scientific words we may not know, when looking at ingredients. If you don’t know what it is, find out.

—–seventh “seasoning” ingredient: natural flavor: beware of this stuff. As long as “it” originally comes from a plant or animal source, an ingredient can be called “natural”. (See Food Watch: Cereals Part 2 under Froot Loops for more details on what a “natural flavor” is).

—–last “seasoning” ingredient: monosodium glutamate (MSG): in general, most of us have heard that MSG is not good for us. I’ve read that it makes us crave the food we’re eating; this means we’re likely to overeat the food. There are also claims that MSG consumption contributes to obesity.

I’ve also read that MSG can be a hidden ingredient.

I think the MSG topic will have to be a separate blog post one day because there’s a lot going on with this ingredient. For now, here’s Meriam Webster’s definition:

“: a crystalline sodium salt…derived from glutamic acid and used to enhance the flavor of food…”

The U.S. and Canadian governments don’t consider MSG a health hazard and deem it generally safe. Based on the questions surrounding MSG, however, I’d eliminate or avoid MSG as much as possible.

sea salt: this ingredient is third last on the entire ingredient list (separate from the “seasoning” list). Sea salt sounds ok.

Sea salt comes later in the list, which means there’s a smaller amount of it compared to the ingredients earlier in the list. We’ll have to look at the total sodium on the nutrition label to really determine what’s going on with the salt.

brown sugar: a sugar we don’t need added to our food, but again, it’s at the end of the list.

vegetable oil (see discussion above)

Next, let’s examine the nutrition labels for the salted and seasoned versions of Spitz sunflower seeds.

Nutrition Label Duo -There are 25 g of fat per serving. Even though they’re healthy, sunflower seeds are very high in fat. Check out the nutrition labels closely. Those tasty little seeds are 70 – 73% fat! (each serving has 25 g of fat x 9 calories = 225 of the 310/320 total calories are from fat).

So, what’s wrong with the fat?

As discussed above, sunflower seeds have the good kind of fat, which is great. Unfortunately, people tend to overeat fatty foods, even the ones with the good fats (think guacamole made from fresh avocado…yum! I could eat a whole bowl!).

If you eat too much of any high fat food, you’re just pummeling your body with extra calories (each gram of fat = 9 calories compared to carbohydrates and protein, which each have only 4 calories per gram).

We can still enjoy high fat foods on occasion, but you need to be aware of the risks of overeating them.

Just before a recent road trip (see Lifestyle Log #15 for a few details of my trip to Calgary -in Alberta, Canada), I looked at the serving size of the Spitz sunflower seeds (1 and 1/3 cup) and portioned out serving sizes into Ziploc bags.

I did this as a strategy to help me avoid overeating them. I figured if I limited myself to one bag per day, then that wouldn’t be too bad. I could be more aware of, and monitor, my consumption.

Guess what?

It didn’t work! I just opened another bag right after I finished one! So tasty and hard to resist the fat/salt combo. Aka: addictive. (See Give Up? Or Fight Back Part 2 for a look at the fat, sugar and salt foods we need to arm ourselves against!).

-These little seeds are high in sodium. The salted version is worse than the seasoned type, with 360 mg of sodium for a serving of 310 calories.

Although I call these sunflower seeds high in sodium, I know the level could be much worse. One could argue that the sodium level isn’t that bad. I use the sodium rule of thumb (mg of sodium should be the same number or lower than the number of calories in the serving) to determine if the sodium level is high.

So, although I agree the sodium level could be way higher, as we find in many packaged products, the amount of sodium is still on the high end.

The seasoned variety has less sodium than the salted version, but as discussed in the ingredient list, approach with caution due to the other ingredients.

-There is 1 g of sugar per serving, so I’m not worried about that.

In my Lifestyle Log #15 I put the sunflower seeds we took on our trip into the evil category of foods we packed for the road. It’s because the seasoned type has ingredients that are less than ideal, and which I define as unhealthy.

Sunflower seeds in the shell are the type of packaged food you need to keep on your radar. If you can enjoy them only once in a while, then you don’t have to worry.

On the other hand, if you can’t stop eating them once you start, or you have them every week, then you might want to consider reducing your consumption.

I realize that this Food Watch topic could have been better timed by coming out earlier in the summer, but like I said before, before this recent road trip, I hadn’t eaten sunflower seeds in the shell in AGES.

I hope this post provided you with some information to help you make healthy food choices in your future.

Happy munching (but not too much).

Wishing you health and success on your journey,


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