One of the oldest known cultivated plants, flaxseed is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia, where it was cultivated more than 7,000 years ago. The flax plant has provided not only sustenance for humans, but has also been prized for fiber used for clothing: it’s the source of linen. Ancient Egyptian burial chambers contained flaxseeds as well as wall paintings depicting the cultivation of flax and the manufacture of cloth made from flax fiber.
Flaxseed gradually spread across Africa, Europe, and finally to North America. It is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity, probably due to its alluring health benefits.
How to Choose and Use Flaxseed
Ground flaxseed goes rancid quickly, so it’s best to buy whole seeds and grind them at home.
Flaxseed supplies an essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which may contribute to a wide range of health benefits including cell membrane health, the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, and cardioprotective abilities. Not many foods are rich in it—only canola, flaxseed, and soybean oils, as well as walnuts and purslane.
Research shows that alpha-linolenic acid may help prevent heart attacks. In an analysis of data from 76,763 women in the Nurses' Health Study, nurses who had consumed the equivalent of a daily tablespoon of canola oil, half an ounce of walnuts, or a little ground flaxseed over 18 years had a one-third to one-half lower risk of a fatal heart attack than those who had consumed little ALA.
In addition, ALA is converted by the body into the type of omega-3 fatty acids found mainly in fish. These “long chain” omega-3s, as they are sometimes called, make platelets in the blood less likely to stick together and may reduce inflammatory processes in blood vessels. Thus they reduce blood clotting, and therefore may lessen the chance of a heart attack. Unfortunately, the conversion of ALA to long chain omega-3s is a far less efficient process than getting the omega-3s directly from fish. Still, every little bit helps.
Flaxseed is also high in fiber, including a type of soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels. The insoluble fiber in flaxseed keeps your digestive system running smoothly and helps to prevent constipation. Because flaxseed is rich in fiber, you should increase water intake along with it.
Flaxseed is the richest source of lignans, which provide fiber. Some lignans are also a type of phytoestrogen. In the process of digestion, bacteria convert lignans into estrogenlike substances called enterodiol and enterolactone. These may have anti-tumor effects. Phytoestrogens are also found in other plants, including soy, certain herbs, whole grains, and other seeds.
Lignans and other flaxseed components may also have antioxidant properties—that is, they may reduce the activity of free radicals, which cause damage at the cellular level. Studies have shown that flaxseed can reduce tumors in lab animals. So far there’s no convincing evidence of a similar action in humans. In addition, lignans may play some role in lowering cholesterol and possibly in maintaining bone density.
It’s important to note that flaxseed oil usually does not contain lignans, though some processors do add some lignans back into the oil.
A caution: In rare instances people may have an allergic reaction to flaxseed and go into anaphylactic shock, as someone might from bee stings or nuts.
6 recipe ideas for flaxseed
1. Stir coarsely ground flaxseeds into cooked cereals or sprinkle it into yogurt.
2. Make a pesto with fresh basil, garlic, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and grated Parmesan cheese. Toss with hot pasta.
3. Use ground flaxseed in baked goods, but don’t replace more than about one-fifth of the flour in a recipe or the texture will suffer.
4. Substitute flaxseed oil for other oils in salad dressings.
5. Use ground flaxseed to replace one-fourth of the flour in pancake or waffle mixes.
6. Stir a tablespoon of flaxseed oil into your morning orange juice.
See also: Seeds for Your Health.
Published September 08, 2015