YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Shellshocked : Messy. Noisy. Popular. What is it about sunflower seeds, anyway?


Did you hear that noise?

Crack .

Shhhhhh, listen.

Ptheew .

Wait, it should be coming around again shortly.

Crack . . . ptheew .

Aha! Another sunflower seed has been eaten.

Everyone, it seems, is going nuts for the seeds. From the mouths of baseball players and truck drivers, the "crack 'n spit" set is spreading throughout the land. Even the cubicles of corporate America have not been spared from the sound that, over time, can start needle-pointing your nerves.

The cybernetically bound are suffering from a chronic case of the crunchies as well.

"Well, of course we eat them--who doesn't?" says Melissa Mollo, a feature production coordinator at 20th Century Fox who seed-shares with her office mates and is on a first-name basis with her particular brand of sunflower seed.

"We all pitch in a buck for a big bag of David's and pour it into a communal bowl. The seeds are also good busy food when you're in production, although sometimes my mouth gets raw by the end of the day."

According to major players in the sunflower field, as a nation we consume between 75 million and 100 million pounds of in-the-shell seeds a year--enough to make you consider investing in lip balm.

"The market has grown by about 7% to 10% a year in the 1990s," estimates Kelly Engelstad, president of Dahlgren & Co., which bills itself as the world's leading supplier of sunflower products. "And I'd say it will continue to grow," he says.

What's more, the salty little suckers in their jail-stripe uniforms have upped and gone gourmet. With the rise of sunflower power, "plain-Jane salted" has morphed into barbecue, salsa, curry, Cajun, ranch, low-salt, no-salt, you name it.

Not everyone is pleased.

"The guy who sits next to me eats them constantly," says Julio Ramirez, a senior systems engineer at Rockwell. "He wears really nice suits and occasionally I'll notice a seed that's dribbled out and is dangling from his pocket handkerchief."

Or they will fall to the floor below.

"Talk about a janitors' nightmare!" exclaims John Real, operations manager for Professional Building Maintenance in Van Nuys.

The problem, according to Real, is that industrial vacuum cleaners tend to regurgitate the shells after sucking them up.

"It drives you nuts," he vents. "You think you're done and then you look and there are still shells all over the floor. In the end, you have to get down on your hands and knees to pick them up."

Real and his 300-400 member crew find the hellish hulls everywhere. Malls, theaters, schools. And office buildings.

"Wherever you have a seed eater, it's bad. You've got 400 little containers in the room and they're all full of seeds. They never seem to end up in the can. I recommend pumpkin seeds. You swallow them whole."

Technically, you can eat sunflower seeds whole, too.

Mollo does--"more to love" as she puts it. But that, scoffs Bill Thompson, president of the ubiquitous Fresno-based David & Sons, is decidedly "amateur." Picking the shell off the seed with your fingers is only half a step up, he adds.

With the endorsement of Major League Baseball behind David's sunflower seeds, Thompson is happy to play Mr. Manners on the etiquette of cracking the snack.

"Real eaters," he says, "put a dozen or more in the mouth, store them in a cheek and use their tongue to move one seed at a time into the molar area where they crack the shell and separate the meat."

All this tricky hand-mouth coordination is part of the reason our snacking habits are going to seed, according to Beverly Hills nutrition therapist Elyse Resch.

"People are looking for ways to fill up the boredom and anything that takes time to eat is appealing. Also this is very oral--the fingers go in the mouth, you play with the seed, you chew on it," she says.

Well, if it's not exactly healthy for the mind, at least it's good for the body, right?

Here's the raw deal: If you gnaw and spitball your way through a bag of seeds thinking, "Health food . . . happy faces . . . hippies . . . better than peanuts . . . I'm eating like a bird," you'd better feather up, my friend.

Truth be told, birds don't eat 'em--not pet birds, anyway. At least, not pet birds with responsible owners who say sunflower seeds are way too fatty for anything other than an occasional treat.

Even baseball players are curbing the habit.

"In the beginning of the season we ate a lot of them," says Gina Satriano of the Colorado Silver Bullets, who is also deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County in the Compton office. "But midway through, we stopped because they're too fattening. We started chewing gum instead."

If sunflower seeds are too fatty for the caged and batting, imagine what that means for desk potatoes trying to survive the office spread.

The puniest little packet of David's (1 7/8 ounces) is 170 calories, about 70% of which come from fat.

In all fairness, sunflower seeds are high in iron while most of the fat is the "good" unsaturated kind. And let's not leave out the fact that David Der Hairbedian--the David of David & Sons--lived to the ripe old age of 99.

As far as David goes, however, maintenance man John Real is looking for his ghost--or whoever wrote the copy on the back of the sunflower seed bags.

"Have you read the instructions for 'How to eat,' " asks Real? "It says, 'Crack and discard shell.' It doesn't say anything about a garbage pail.

"I actually like to eat sunflower seeds myself," he confesses, "but for me the whole thing's become a kind of phobia."

Los Angeles Times Articles