Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Helianthus annuus

By Jeremy Trombley

Sunflowers are one of the most important oil crops in the world, and are a valuable food source in many countries. They are tall growing annuals, sometimes reaching as high as three meters with large fruit bearing heads (Heiser). The heads may contain up to several thousand small flowers within a larger flower, and these smaller flowers are responsible for producing the fruits (Heiser). The fruits are usually referred to as seeds, but are technically achenes, and are a very nutritious food supply (Heiser). Sunflowers are also a common decorative plant in the U.S. and Europe, and are known for their heliotropic, or sun following, quality.

Origins and History

All of the many sunflower varieties are indigenous to the western regions of North America (Hesier). They were collected extensively by the Native American tribes of the area, and they probably found their way eastward following the migrations of these tribes (Heiser). It was in the eastern portion of North America where sunflowers were first domesticated around 3500 years ago, and selected for larger seeds, resistance to pests and higher protein content (NSA). They were widely cultivated along with squash and a variety of chenopod prior to the arrival of maize agriculture from Mexico (Heiser). However, by the time Europeans arrived in North America, sunflowers had been replaced as the dominant crop by maize, and the chenopod had disappeared all together (Heiser). Sunflowers continued to be a minor crop, but it was in Europe that they would find a revival.

Sunflowers were brought back to Europe shortly after the discovery of the Americas. At first they were admired for their size, but were not widely accepted as a food (Heiser). It was in Russia where sunflowers found their way into the European diet. The Russian Orthodox Church imposed heavy restrictions on russian diets during Lent, and had a list of foods that were not to be consumed. Perhaps due to their obscurity, the Church failed to include sunflowers on the list (Heiser). Because of their high protein and oil content, they quickly became a popular food among the peasantry and found a stable position in the Russian diet. Russia and the former Soviet republics continue to be the worlds greatest producers of sunflowers (Heiser). U.S. sunflower production came late in the 19th century with the re-introduction of European varieties which provided a higher yield, increased pest resistance, and a higher oil and protein content compared to indigenous American varieties (Heiser).


Sunflower seeds are used in many places around the world. Traditionally the seeds were shelled, toasted and consumed whole or ground into a flour and used to make cakes or a nutritious mush (NSA).

Today, most of the world's sunflower supply goes to make oil. However, much of it is also used as snack food, and for bird seed. Sunflower hulls are often used as roughage in livestock feed (Heiser).

Nutritional Value

One ounce (28g) of sunflower seeds contains 6g of protein, 14g of fats, 2.4g of fiber and 5g of carbohydrates (NSA). The fats are almost entirely unsaturated with 9g of polyunsaturated and 3g of monounsaturated fats per ounce (NSA). The oil is high in linoleic acid and is a good source of vitamin E (NSA).


Heiser, Charles B. “Sunflower.” The Cambridge World History of Food. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 427-430.

“National Sunflower Association.” 16 Nov 2008

  • » unique contribution of temperate north america
  • » one of the most important oil crops
  • » achenes not seeds
  • » wild seeds collected by native americans in W. North America
  • » camp following plant
  • » domesticated in eastern North America prior to 1500 BCE
  • » prior to the arrival of maize
  • » cultivated extensively before 500 bce
  • » replaced by maize ag. by the time Europeans arrived
  • » still a minor crop
  • » originally not a popular food plant in Europe
  • » finally adopted in Russia due to Lenten dietary restrictions which failed to prohibit sunflower
  • » World Wars increased production in Europe
  • » former USSR continues to be the primary producer
  • » US production came late in 19th century with re-introduction of European varieties (higher yield, pest resistance, oil and protein content, etc.)
  • » Seeds also used for bird feed and livestock feed
  • » hulls used for roughage for livestock

  • » seeds may be eaten whole, ground into flour
  • » once ounce (about 28g) of sunflower seeds contains about 6g of protein and 14g of oils