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Why do Spaniards love to eat sunflower seeds?

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Why do Spaniards love to eat sunflower seeds?
Spaniards are said to have regularly started eating 'pipas' during the Spanish Civil War. Photo: McLeod/Wikipedia

Spaniards love to pass the time cracking salted sunflower shells open with their teeth one by one before eating the seeds inside, leaving behind a wet grey mess on the ground at football stadiums or on the street. What’s all this about Spain?

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Spain is one of only a few countries around the world where sunflower seeds are a common snack, and we don't mean for parrots. 

In most nations they may make it into breads or healthy breakfast cereals, but in Spain they're toasted, their shells are coated in salt and they’re sold in packets, almost as if they were crisps or nuts.

It’s not so bizarre that Spaniards eat pipas - as sunflower seeds are called in Spanish - but how they eat them. 

You open the pack, pour a small pile into your hand, and with your other hand proceed to pop one pipa at a time into your mouth, suck the salt off it, then place the shell vertically in between your teeth to crack it open and remove the seed with your tongue before eating it. 

You then repeat the process 100, 200 times until your mouth has partially lost sensitivity due to all the salt content. 

Sunflower seed eating is particularly common among spectators at football stadiums. 

Once the match has ended, you’ll see piles of them everywhere, as people tend to spit the shell down onto the ground before eating their next pipa.

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You may see the same mess on the ground under a park bench, or on a street corner where someone has been perched waiting.

A handful of municipalities across Spain have banned pipas from being eaten (and their shells from being thrown on the ground) at sports grounds or in the street as a result.

Eating pipas is often a way of passing the time for Spaniards and keeping their hands and mouths busy. 

Sunflower seed eating isn't always the most hygienic habit. Photo: Steph Chambers/AFP
 

Many people find them addictive, which according to nutritionists is because they contain tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes the synthesis of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates our happiness. Furthermore, our neurons don’t get saturated by the salt so we continue to feel hungry and can’t stop eating them.

In fact, they can be so moreish and the repetitive action of putting them in our mouths and cracking them open can be so comforting that some people recommend them as a way of quitting smoking. 

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But that’s not all, as the history of how pipas became a salty snack in Spain is just as fascinating. 

The sunflower was first brought to Spain from America by conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and from there on the yellow-petalled plant began to be used for decorative purposes across Europe. 

But the consumption of sunflower seeds is said to have come several centuries later during the Spanish Civil War.

The story goes that Russian soldiers enlisted in the International Brigades that fought alongside Spanish Republicans against Franco’s nationalists recommended sunflower seeds as a cheap and nutritious food source which they had relied on during times of hunger. 

Russia is after all one of the only nations alongside Spain in which pipas are eaten by locals.

It had previously been a snack eaten mainly by Russian peasants, but the 1917 revolution ensured it became ingrained as a popular snack for all across the USSR.

Spain’s fascist dictator is said to have been against Spaniards eating pipas, labelling it a “communist” pastime. 

But the habit was here to stay, as sunflower crops were already regularly harvested for their oil (aceite de girasol) in Cuenca and Andalusia and the seeds began to be increasingly sold alongside nuts at market stands and shops.

A 1937 article published in Spanish newspaper ABC warned that “the abuse of sunflower seeds has caused an epidemic of anginas, inflammation and throat irritation, strong coughs and snot”.

Health experts nowadays will warn against eating anything more than 30 grammes of pipas a day, but they are a healthy source of magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, iron, zinc and potassium if consumed in moderation.

Interestingly, even though sunflower production for oil extraction is currently widespread across Andalusia, Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha, Spain imports almost all of the sunflower seeds that are eaten (pipas blancas or de boca) from the US and Turkey.

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