Basil seeds, also known as sabja seeds, have been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic, Afghani, and Chinese medicine to treat a range of digestive symptoms. The Thai basil plant is indigenous to India, China, and the Middle East. It’s been cultivated for over five centuries for medical and culinary uses and arrived in the American colonies in the 17th century.
- Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist
Health benefits of basil seeds
They're packed with gut perks
Like chia, these tiny black seeds readily absorb water, making them a great alternative seed for creamy puddings. This gelling property can also help slow digestion, which can increase feelings of satiety and “promote bowel regularity,” says Keri Gans, RDN, an NYC-based nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet.
“Basil seeds are a good source of fiber, which may help lower cholesterol levels and promote gut health,” says Gans. A two-tablespoon serving contains 15 of the 25 grams of dietary fiber Gans says women should be eating on average every day (men should shoot for 30 grams a day).
Basil seeds are good for your bones
A serving of the seeds also contains 370 milligrams of calcium and 90 milligrams of magnesium, “both of which are important minerals to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis,” says Gans. You’ll also get 4.7 milligrams of iron per serving, which is essential for producing hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells and necessary for circulation.
A serving of the seeds also contains 370 milligrams of calcium and 90 milligrams of magnesium, “both of which are important minerals to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis.”—Keri Gans, RDN
And like most edible seeds, “basil seeds are also packed with antioxidants, such as polyphenols, which may help maintain immune health and reduce the risk for certain cancers.” says Gans.
And filled with heart-healthy fats
Compared to chia, basil seeds are slightly higher in fat. Each serving contains six grams (two tablespoons of chia seeds offer five grams of fat). However, Gans explains, “the fat found in basil seeds is monounsaturated, which is heart healthy and may help reduce the risk for heart disease.”
The cultural significance of basil seeds
Despite their robust nutritional benefits, it’s been difficult to find basil seeds outside of specialty health food stores and well-stocked Asian markets in the U.S. Which is the struggle Shakira Niazi, founder of ZenBasil, faced when searching for healing foods for her son. After having to undergo several rounds of antibiotics, she was looking for a way to help rebuild and strengthen his gut microbiome and immune system. Niazi looked to her Afghani heritage for foods that could help.
Niazi, who fled Afghanistan as a refugee at 12 years old, recalled her grandmother making basil seed-infused drinks during her childhood. Her grandmother lauded the seed’s power to “support the gut, heart, mind.” The seeds also “had cooling properties, by which she meant anti-inflammatory properties,” says Niazi.
Niazi, who fled Afghanistan as a refugee at 12 years old, recalled her grandmother making basil seed-infused drinks during her childhood. Her grandmother lauded the seed’s power to “support the gut, heart, mind.”
“My search led me to The Canon of Medicine, a book that was used as a medical authority for eight centuries, and happens to have been written in my family’s village,” says Niazi. The Canon lists basil as a salve for a range of medical troubles, including kidney and bladder pain, headaches, gastritis, and menstrual pain.
How to prep, eat, and serve basil seeds at home
If you’re like the 95 percent of Americans who fall short of their daily dietary fiber needs, you may want to add a sprinkle of basil seeds to your diet. But heed Gans’ warning that “basil seeds should not be eaten until they’ve been soaked in water,” which makes them softer and easier on your digestive system. Unlike chia seeds, which are fairly neutral in taste, you will get a subtle basil flavor, though it’s easily overpowered by a dollop of maple syrup or a splash of vanilla extract.
Niazi notes that basil seeds will become fully hydrated in just five minutes, so you can mix up a drink without the advanced planning that chia demands. Traditionally, the seeds are simply stirred into a glass of water, tea, or fruit juice for a hydrating and fiber-fueled refreshment.
The drink takes on a thicker, slightly gelatinous texture that can take some getting used to, but it’s not all that different from the tapioca pearls in bubble tea and is quite nice if you enjoy a bit of chew and heft in your drinks. You can also incorporate the seeds into baking recipes, hot porridge or oatmeal, as an egg replacement, or use them anywhere you’d use chia seeds.
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