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The warm, earthy and subtly nutty flavor of flaxseeds combined with an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids makes them an increasingly popular addition to the diets of many a health conscious consumer. Whole and ground flaxseeds, as well as flaxseed oil, are available throughout the year.
Flaxseeds are slightly larger than sesame seeds and have a hard shell that is
smooth and shiny. Their color ranges from deep amber to reddish brown depending
upon whether the flax is of the golden or brown variety. While whole flaxseeds
feature a soft crunch, the nutrients in ground seeds are more easily absorbed.
Flaxseeds are rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat that is a precursor to the form of omega-3 found in fish oils called eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. Since the fats are found in their isolated form in flaxseed oil, it is a more concentrated source of ALA than the seeds themselves (although it doesn't have the other nutrients that the seeds do). ALA, in addition to providing several beneficial effects of its own, can be converted in the body to EPA, thus providing EPA's beneficial effects. For this conversion to readily take place, however, depends on the presence and activity of an enzyme called delta-6-destaurase, which, in some individuals, is less available or less active than in others. In addition, delta-6-desaturase function is inhibited in diabetes and by the consumption of saturated fat and alcohol. For these reasons, higher amounts of ALA-rich flaxseeds or its oil must be consumed to provide the same benefits as the omega-3 fats found in the oil of cold-water fish. Yet research indicates that for those who do not eat fish or wish to take fish oil supplements, flaxseed oil does provide a good alternative. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that flaxseed oil capsules providing 3 grams of alpha-linolenic acid daily for 12 weeks-an amount that would be provided by 3 tablespoons of flaxseed oil a day-increased blood levels of EPA by 60% in a predominantly African-American population with chronic illness.
A recent MedLine check (MedLine provides access to the published peer-reviewed medical literature) revealed 1,677 research articles on linolenic acid, investigating its effects on numerous physiological processes and health conditions.
Omega-3 fats are used by the body to produce Series 1 and 3 prostaglandins, which are anti-inflammatory hormone-like molecules, in contrast to the Series 2 prostaglandins, which are pro-inflammatory molecules produced from other fats, notably the omega-6 fats, which are found in high amounts in animal fats, margarine, and many vegetable oils including corn, safflower, sunflower, palm, and peanut oils. Omega-3 fats can help reduce the inflammation that is a significant factor in conditions such as asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraine headaches.
Protection Against Heart Disease, Cancer and Diabetes
Omega-3 fats are used to produce substances that reduce the formation of blood clots, which can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients with atherosclerosis or diabetic heart disease.
Omega-3 fats are also needed to produce flexible cell membranes. Cell membranes are the cell's gatekeepers, allowing in needed nutrients while promoting the elimination of wastes. While important for everyone, flexible cell membranes are critical for persons with diabetes since flexible cell membranes are much better able to respond to insulin and to absorb glucose than the stiff membranes that result when the diet is high in saturated and/or hydrogenated (trans-) fats. In the colon, omega-3 fats help protect colon cells from cancer-causing toxins and free radicals, leading to a reduced risk for colon cancer.
Flaxseed Provides Comparable Cholesterol-Lowering Benefits to Statin Drugs
In a study involving 40 patients with high cholesterol (greater than 240 mg/dL), daily consumption of 20 grams of ground flaxseed was compared to taking a statin drug. After 60 days, significant reductions were seen in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol-in both groups. Those receiving flaxseed did just as well as those given statin drugs!
Body mass index, total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, and the ratio of total cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol were measured at the beginning of the study and after 60 days.
In those eating flaxseed, significant reductions were seen in total cholesterol (-17.2%), LDL-cholesterol (-3.9%), triglycerides (-36.3%) and the ratio of total cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol (-33.5%) were observed in the diet+flax group, compared to baseline. Similar reductions were seen in those taking the statin. Benefits did not significantly differ between the two groups.
Rich in Beneficial Fiber
Flaxseeds' omega-3 fats are far from all this exceptional food has to offer. Flaxseed meal and flour provides a very good source of fiber that can lower cholesterol levels in people with atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, reduce the exposure of colon cells to cancer-causing chemicals, help relieve constipation and stabilize blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. Flaxseeds are also a good source of magnesium, which helps to reduce the severity of asthma by keeping airways relaxed and open, lowers high blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, prevents the blood vessel spasm that leads to migraine attacks, and generally promotes relaxation and restores normal sleep patterns. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that eating high fiber foods, such as flaxseed, helps prevent heart disease. Almost 10,000 American adults participated in this study and were followed for 19 years. People eating the most fiber, 21 grams per day, had 12% less CHD and 11% less CVD compared to those eating the least, 5 grams daily. Those eating the most water-soluble dietary fiber fared even better with a 15% reduction in risk of CHD and a 10% risk reduction in CVD.
Special Protection for Women's Health
Flaxseed meal and flour have been studied quite a bit lately for their beneficial protective effects on women's health. Flaxseed is particularly rich in lignans, special compounds also found in other seeds, grains, and legumes that are converted by beneficial gut flora into two hormone-like substances called enterolactone and enterodiol. These hormone-like agents demonstrate a number of protective effects against breast cancer and are believed to be one reason a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk for breast cancer. Studies show that women with breast cancer and women who are omnivores typically excrete much lower levels of lignans in their urine than vegetarian women without breast cancer. In animal studies conducted to evaluate lignans' beneficial effect, supplementing a high-fat diet with flaxseed flour reduced early markers for mammary (breast) cancer in laboratory animals by more than 55%.
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, when postmenopausal women ate a daily muffin containing either 25 grams (a little less than 1 ounce) of soy protein, 25 grams of ground flaxseed, or a placebo muffin containing neither for 16 weeks, the estrogen metabolism of those eating flaxseed, but not soy or placebo, was altered in several important protective ways:
So what does this mean in plain English? Eating about an ounce of ground flaxseed each day will affect the way estrogen is handled in postmenopausal women in such a way that offers protection against breast cancer but will not interfere with estrogen's role in normal bone maintenance.
In addition to lessening a woman's risk of developing cancer, the lignans abundant in flaxseed can promote normal ovulation and extend the second, progesterone-dominant half of the cycle. The benefits of these effects are manifold. For women trying to become pregnant, consistent ovulation significantly improves their chances of conception. For women between the ages of 35 and 55 who are experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, breast cysts, headaches, sleep difficulties, fluid retention, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, weight gain, lowered sex drive, brain fog, fibroid tumors, and heavy bleeding, a probable cause of all these problems is estrogen dominance. Typically, during the 10 years preceding the cessation of periods at midlife, estrogen levels fluctuate while progesterone levels steadily decline. Flaxseed, by promoting normal ovulation and lengthening the second half of the menstrual cycle, in which progesterone is the dominant hormone, helps restore hormonal balance.
Preliminary research also suggests that flaxseeds may serve a role in protecting post-menopausal woman from cardiovascular disease. In a recent double-blind randomized study, flaxseeds reduced total cholesterol levels in the blood of postmenopausal women who were not on hormone replacement therapy by an average of 6%.
Lastly, lignan-rich fiber has also been shown to decrease insulin resistance, which, in turn, reduces bio-available estrogen, which also lessens breast cancer risk. And, as insulin resistance is an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes, flaxseed may also provide protection against this disease.
Fend Off Dry Eyes
Dry eye syndrome (DES) afflicts more than 10 million Americans. Artificial tears offer only temporary relief. Expensive prescription drugs promise help, but at the cost of potentially serious side effects.
Could Mother Nature provide a cure? Yes, suggests research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving nearly 40,000 female health professionals aged 45-84 enrolled in the Women's Health Study.
Researcher Biljana Miljanovic, MD, MPH, and colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital looked at whether essential fatty acids-the omega-3 fats (found in high amounts in cold water fish and flaxseeds), and the omega-6 fats (found in red meat, safflower, sunflower, soy and corn oils)-play a role.
They do. Women whose diets provided the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids had a 17% lower risk of dry eye syndrome compared with those consuming the least of these beneficial fats.
In contrast, a diet high in omega-6 fats, but low in omega-3s, significantly increased DES risk. Women whose diets supplied a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids had a 2.5-fold higher risk of DES syndrome compared to those with a more balanced intake of fatty acids.
Researchers specifically looked at eating tuna fish-a main source of omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet.
Compared with women eating less than one 4-ounce serving of tuna a week:
"These findings suggest that increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of dry eye syndrome, an important and prevalent cause of ocular complaints," Miljanovic and colleagues conclude. In addition to tuna fish, omega-3 fatty acids are richly supplied by other fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and herring), flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. Due to concerns about mercury levels in tuna, to lower your risk of DES we recommend enjoying a variety of cold-water fish and adding flaxseeds and flaxseed oil to your Healthiest Way of Eating.
What's in a name? Well, when it comes to the scientific name of flaxseeds, the name says it all. Flaxseeds are known as Linum usitatissimum with it species name meaning "most useful." That would definitely describe the versatility and nutritional value of this tiny little seed.
Flaxseeds are slightly larger than sesame seeds and have a hard shell that is smooth and shiny. Their color ranges from deep amber to reddish brown depending upon whether the flax is of the golden or brown variety.
Their flavor is warm and earthy with a subtly nutty edge. While unground flaxseeds feature a soft crunch, they are usually not consumed whole but rather ground since this allows for the enhancement of their nutrient absorption. Ground flaxseeds can have a relatively mealy texture with a potential hint of crunch depending upon how fine they are ground.
Flaxseeds have a long and extensive history. Originating in Mesopotamia, the flax plant has been known since the Stone Ages. One of the first records of the culinary use of flaxseeds is from times of ancient Greece. In both that civilization and in ancient Rome, the health benefits of flaxseeds were widely praised. After the fall of Rome, the cultivation and popularity of flaxseeds declined.
Ironically, it was Charlemagne, the emperor who would be famous for shaping European history, who also helped to shape the history of flaxseeds, restoring them to their noble position in the food culture of Europe. Charlemagne was impressed with how useful flax was in terms of its culinary, medicinal, and fiber usefulness (flaxseed fibers can be woven into linen) that he passed laws requiring not only its cultivation but its consumption as well. After Charlemange, flaxseeds became widely appreciated throughout Europe.
It was not until the early colonists arrived in North America that flax was first planted in the United States. In the 17th century, flax was first introduced and planted in Canada, the country that is currently the major producer of this extremely beneficial seed.
Flaxseeds can be purchased either whole or already ground. The two different forms offer distinct benefits. Although ground flaxseeds may be more convenient, whole flaxseeds feature a longer shelf life.
Whole flaxseeds are generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the flaxseeds are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure their maximal freshness. Whether purchasing flaxseeds in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture. If you purchase whole flaxseeds, store them in an airtight container in a dark, dry and cool place where they will keep fresh for several months.
Ground flaxseeds are usually available both refrigerated and non-refrigerated. It is highly recommended to purchase ground flaxseed that is in a vacuum-sealed package or has been refrigerated since once flaxseeds are ground, they are much more prone to oxidation and spoilage. Likewise, if you either purchase ground flaxseeds or you grind them at home, it is important to keep them in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent them from becoming rancid.
Flaxseed oil is especially perishable and should be purchased in opaque bottles that have been kept refrigerated. Flaxseed oil should have a sweet nutty flavor. Never use flaxseed oil in cooking; add it to foods after they have been heated.
For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.
Tips for Preparing Flaxseeds:
Grind flaxseeds in a coffee or seed grinder in order to enhance their digestibility and therefore their nutritional value. If adding ground flaxseeds to a cooked cereal or grain dish, do so at the end of cooking since the soluble fiber in the flaxseeds can thicken liquids if left too long.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas:
Sprinkle ground flaxseeds onto your hot or cold cereal.
Add flaxseeds to your homemade muffin, cookie or bread recipe.
To pump up the nutritional volume of your breakfast shake, add ground flaxseeds.
To give cooked vegetables a nuttier flavor, sprinkle some ground flaxseeds on top of them.
Add a tablespoon of flaxseed oil to smoothies.
While flaxseeds contain cyanogenic glycosides compounds, at normal levels and without protein malnutrition, researchers currently maintain that this is not of concern and should cause no adverse effects (they consider 50 grams, which is more than 2 TBS, to be a safe amount for most people). The heat employed by cooking has been found to eliminate the presence of these compounds.
Some people have gastrointestinal symptoms, such as flatulence and bloating, when they first begin to incorporate flaxseeds into their diet. It is suggested to start with a small amount, such as one teaspoon, and slowly build yourself up to your intake goal. When increasing fiber intake in the diet, it is also a good idea to include fluid (water) intake as well.
Flaxseeds are an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. They are a very good source of dietary fiber and manganese. They are also a good source of folate and vitamin B6 as well as the minerals magnesium, phosphorous, and copper. In addition, flax seeds are concentrated in lignan phytonutrients.
For an in-depth nutritional profile click here: Flax seeds.
In-Depth Nutritional Profile
In addition to the nutrients highlighted in our ratings chart, an in-depth nutritional profile for Flaxseeds is also available. This profile includes information on a full array of nutrients, including carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids and more.
Introduction to Food Rating System Chart
The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents; the nutrient density rating; and the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System.
In Depth Nutritional Profile for Flaxseeds