Can You Eat Sunflower Seed Shells?
Sunflower seeds, which come from the dried center of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus L.), are packed with healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals (1).
They’re delicious as a snack, in baked goods, or sprinkled atop salad or yogurt.
Yet, since you can buy them either whole or shelled, you may wonder whether it’s safe or nutritious to eat the shells.
This article explains whether you should eat sunflower seed shells.
Sunflower seeds have a white and grayish-black striped outer shell that holds a kernel (1).
The kernel, or meat, of a sunflower seed is the edible part. It’s tan, soft to chew, and has a slightly buttery flavor and texture.
Whole sunflower seeds are often roasted, salted, and seasoned in their shells, and many people enjoy munching them this way. They’re a particular favorite at baseball games.
However, the shells have to be spit out and should not be eaten.
The shells, also called hulls, are tough, fibrous, and difficult to chew. They’re high in fibers called lignin and cellulose, which your body can’t digest (2).
An easier and safer alternative to whole, roasted seeds is shelled sunflower seeds. If you desire, you can season them with olive oil, salt, and any spices you like.
Health risks of eating the shells
It’s not harmful if you accidentally swallow small pieces of shell. Nonetheless, if you eat a large amount, the shells may cause a blockage in your intestinal tract, which can be dangerous.
Seed shells from any type of edible plant can collect in your small or large intestine and form a mass, also called a bezoar. It can cause constipation, intestinal pain, and in some cases, bowel impaction (3).
An impacted bowel means that a large mass of stool is stuck in your colon or rectum. It may be painful and, in some cases, cause hemorrhoids or more serious damage, such as a tear in your large intestine.
Often, a bezoar has to be removed while you’re under general anesthesia. In some cases, surgery may be necessary (3).
Sunflower seed shells may also have sharp edges, which could scrape your throat if you swallow them.
You shouldn’t eat sunflower seed shells, as they can cause intestinal damage. If you enjoy the flavor of whole sunflower seeds, be sure to spit out the shell before eating the kernel.
If you eat a lot of sunflower seeds and don’t want to throw away the shells, you can use them in several ways.
One option is to apply them as mulch in your garden, as they help prevent weeds from growing around your plants.
You can also use them as a coffee or tea substitute. Just toast the shells lightly in an oven or frying pan, then grind them in a spice grinder. Steep 1 tablespoon (12 grams) per 1 cup (240 mL) of hot water.
Furthermore, ground hulls make roughage for poultry and ruminant animals like cows and sheep. Industrially, they’re often turned into fuel pellets and fiberboard.
If you want to recycle your discarded sunflower seed shells, put them to use as garden mulch or a coffee or tea substitute.
Sunflower seed kernels are particularly high in healthy fats and protein. They’re also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (1, 4).
Antioxidants are plant compounds that may protect your cells and DNA from oxidative damage. In turn, this may reduce your risk of conditions like heart disease.
Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of sunflower seed kernels provides (4):
- Calories: 165
- Protein: 5 grams
- Carbs: 7 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Fat: 14 grams
- Vitamin E: 37% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Selenium: 32% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 32% of the DV
- Manganese: 30% of the DV
- Vitamin B5: 20% of the DV
- Folate: 17% of the DV
The oil in sunflower kernels is especially rich in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that helps maintain healthy cell membranes. As your body can’t make omega-6s, you have to get them from your diet (1).
Most of sunflower seeds’ nutrients are in the kernel, which is the edible part of the seed. It’s especially rich in healthy fats and protein.
You should avoid eating sunflower seed shells.
As they’re fibrous and indigestible, the shells may damage your digestive tract.
If you prefer to munch on whole sunflower seeds, be sure to spit out the shells. Otherwise, you can simply eat shelled sunflower seeds, which provide only the nutrient-rich, tasty kernel.