By John Prince
As George Carlin might have said, “Now here’s something you don’t hear much about anymore: Sesame seeds.”
In 2021 the world production of sesame seeds totaled around 4.8 million tons. That’s a lot of seeds. A good deal of it ended up in the trash. How could that happen?
Yep. We’re talking about those little seeds (about the size of a bedbug) that decorate bagels and fast-food hamburger buns, are found in sesame bar candy, and are crushed for cooking oil. They are everywhere.
I wondered about them the other day when I was cutting my sesame bagel for the toaster. A big pile of them (sesame seeds) remained on the cutting board afterward among the crumbs. I wet my finger and dipped up bunches of them, crushing them between my teeth, enjoying the nutty flavor. The rest I scraped into the trash.
This does seem like a lot of to do about nothing much, but then I got to thinking—and doing some research.
Sesame seeds are apparently incredibly nutritious and (according to the Sesame Seed Marketing Report): “one of the wonder foods of nature:” 50% fat (the good plant kind), 23% carbs, 12% fiber. Most of the world supply comes from Myanmar, India, China, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Niger—certainly a mixed bag of nations. There is some sesame seed production in states like Oklahoma and Texas, but it is a blip in terms of the other major producers.
China, Japan, Turkey, European Union, South Korea, Vietnam, USA, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are major importers of the little seeds.
One of the oldest food oil sources (cultivated over 5,500 years ago), sesame plants grow best in hot, drought-stricken parts of the world. Sometimes called a “survivor” plant, because it requires minimum attention, the seeds develop in capsules or pods which split open, and come in a wide variety of colors including buff, tan, gold, brown, reddish, gray, and black. The sesame seeds in the grocery stores and on our bagels have been hulled.
Let’s get unscientific here. How much of this great nutrition is falling off our bagels and ending up in the trash?
One popular recipe asks for 1/3 cup of sesame seeds in the manufacture of every eight bagels; one cup for 24 bagels. (Just to be clear: That’s stuck on the outside of the bagel.) I’m going out on a limb here folks, but I’m guessing that there are about a billion sesame seed bagels sold in the US annually. That requires around 41.66 million cups of seeds, each cup weighing about five ounces; approximately 104,000 tons. Still with me? OK!
Let’s assume that 35% of the sesame seeds fall off during baking, transportation, in the delivery bag, on the cutting board, in the toaster, on the serving plate, and wherever. That means that 36.4 tons of sesame seeds are ending up in the landfill annually. That is, in case you need the calculation, some 1.1 billion grams of protein. The average adult needs about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. You do the math on this one.
Among all of the other good things in sesame seeds I have mentioned, they contain dietary fiber, may help lower cholesterol and triglycerides as well as blood pressure, may support healthy bones, and are a good source of B vitamins. Plus, a lot of other benefits.
But wait, there’s more. These calculations do not include the sesame seeds lost from hamburger buns, sesame chicken, and all of the other foods that use them. The loss is tremendous.
Here are three activities that will help salvage those lost sesame seeds.
- If you bought bagels at the deli, shake the bag and collect all of the seeds/crumbs at the bottom. Then upend the lot into your mouth, being careful not to inhale while doing so, and chow down the mixture.
- If you ordered a bagel at the deli and it is served on a plate, moisten the tip of your index finger on your tongue, swirl the moistened finger around the plate collecting the loose seeds. Lick the finger and eat. Repeat until all of the seeds are gone.
- Prepping a bagel for toasting at home. In addition to completing activities 1 and 2 above, scrape the seeds and crumbs together on the cutting board and, using a table knife generously smeared with cream cheese, move the seeds into your mouth, chew while enjoying the sweet, nutty flavor. Repeat until the last seed is gone. (You might also want to consider cleaning the toaster because there’s a bunch more tasty bits in there!)
Then there’s “Open Sesame” from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which I do not believe has any relationship to sesame seeds, lost protein, bagels, or trash.
Now, aren’t you glad you read this? Imagine the fun you can have at the next family/friends get-together playing “Fun Sesame Seed FAQs.”