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The Seedy Truth: Sunflower Seeds vs. Sesame Seeds

February 27, 2017
Sunflower seeds win on energy density--an ounce of seeds packs more than 170 calories.
Photo: PixabaySunflower seeds win on energy density–an ounce of seeds packs more than 170 calories.

Few things pack as much nutritional and go-power punch as seeds. Loaded with fat, carbs, and protein, they provide sustained energy for minimal weight and should be considered any time you’re looking for maximum calories per ounce of food. But many popular seeds (chia, poppy, hemp, etc.) are also tiny and hard to eat on the trail, which is why I’m focusing on two of the most viable, highest-calorie options for carrying in your pack. Here’s a breakdown of sunflower seeds vs. sesame seeds.

I’ve written before about the highest-calorie trail foods, a list almost entirely composed of various nuts and seeds that contain more than 150 calories per ounce (even if some of them actually deliver fewer usable calories than listed). And when it comes to caloric content, both sunflower and sesame seeds excel, with sunflower seeds packing just a bit more (173 calories per ounce) than sesame seeds (158 calories per ounce).

Both seeds also provide a mix of carbs, protein, and fat, though the exact ratios of the three vary slightly. Sesame seeds contain a few more carbohydrates than sunflower seeds and sunflower seeds are a bit higher in fat content; both contain equivalent amounts of protein. It’s worth noting that the fat content (which consists mostly of unsaturated fat) in both exceeds the carb and protein content by a fair bit. For sesame seeds its 13 grams fat vs. 7 grams carbs vs. 5 grams protein per ounce. for sunflower seeds, it’s 16 grams fat vs. 6 grams carbs vs. 5 grams protein per ounce.

Sesame seeds offer a few more carbs per ounce than sunflower seeds.
Photo: PixabaySesame seeds offer a few more carbs per ounce than sunflower seeds.

The upshot? Both are powerhouse foods capable of providing sustained energy (fat), muscle support (protein), and some immediate go-power (carbs) on the trail. They are also both quite inexpensive—you can buy a pound of sunflower seeds (nearly 3,000 calories worth) for less than the cost of many an energy bar, which contains only a tenth or so of the energy.

The challenge, though, is that neither seed is particularly easy to eat on the trail without making a mess and spilling some on the ground. Sunflower seeds are the better option, given their larger size—you can add them to trail mix or eat them straight out of your hand (though some always seem to escape in the process). My favorite technique is to load up a small bottle with sunflower seeds and then pour them straight into my mouth so that none escape. (You’ll need a sufficiently wide mouth on the bottle to do this.)

Sesame seeds are way more challenging to deal with given their tiny size. That’s why my go-to recommendation here are Loucks Sezme Sesame Snaps, which bind the seeds together with a small amount of glucose syrup and sugar and pack 210 calories into each 1.4-ounce package. (A pack of 24 is less than $15 on Amazon.)

Personally, I’m all about the sunflower seeds and have found them to be a remarkable source of sustained energy over hours and hours of exertion. I’ve also found that they vary pretty dramatically in taste and texture by brand—my personal favorite these days are the sunflower seeds from Whole Foods (the 365 house brand variety; $2.49 per pound at my local store.)

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.