Halvah is based on an Arabic root that means "sweet." A treat similar to modern halvah, honey-covered sesame seeds, was consumed in ancient Babylon by women to preserve health and beauty. Roman soldiers ate the combination for strength, understandable because sesame seeds contain a variety of important vitamins, minerals and protein. These nutrients are more easily digested and utilized when the sesame seeds are ground into a paste or butter called tahini. Highly sweetened sesame seed paste is the essence of modern commercial halvah. Though sesame seed is generally a healthy food choice, the amount of sugar in halvah makes moderate intake a necessity.
Halvah is popular in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and in Jewish communities around the world. Though many variations exist, most commercial halvah is based on tahini, a sesame seed paste. Other nut or seed butters can be used, like sunflower, almond or walnut. Common embellishments include the addition of chocolate, or nuts such as pistachios or pine nuts. In some countries, halvah is prepared with grains, legumes or vegetables.
Commercial halvah is typically available in eight-ounce bars, equivalent to 227 grams. But due to the sweetness, a single serving size is usually less than half of such a bar. The U.S. Department of Agriculture data on the nutritional value of halvah are based on a 227 gram serving of plain sesame halvah. One serving contains 1,185 calories (kcal). Of its 227 grams, more than 130 grams are carbohydrates, and of these, about 120 are sugar. Traditionally, halvah was sweetened with honey. Commercial halvah is more likely to contain glucose, high fructose corn syrup or refined white sugar.
An eight-ounce bar of plain halvah is about eight percent protein. A 227 gram serving contains about 18 grams of protein, just less than half of recommended daily intake. This includes at least 17 amino acids, including several that are essential for human beings. Sesame tahini contains notable levels of leucine and arginine, amino acids that must be obtained through diet.
An eight-ounce bar of halvah contains about 72 grams of fat, of which about one sixth is saturated fat. Most of the fat in tahini is monounsaturated rich in omega-9 fatty acids. Sesame seed oil contains phytosterols, which are associated with lower levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad cholesterol", and higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good cholesterol."
Sesame seed tahini is particularly rich in copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and calcium. It also contains vitamins E and B1 (thiamine). An eight-ounce bar (227 grams) contains about 10 grams of dietary fiber. Perhaps most significantly, sesame seed oil is an important source of phytoestrogens, which, though not technically nutrients, do have antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.