The first time I encountered a flaxseed, I thought it was a flea. No joke. Don’t let these tiny little powerhouses of minerals (free radical-scavenging manganese, bone-supportive magnesium, phosphorus, and copper), vitamins (energy-producing vitamin B1), antioxidants, fiber, and essential fatty acids (good fats, and “essential” meaning that our bodies do not manufacture them) linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid deceive you. Flaxseeds, which are also referred to as linseeds, come from flax, one of the oldest fiber crops in the world – known to have been cultivated in ancient Egypt and ancient China and come in two main types – golden flaxseed and brown flaxseed (I eat both kinds; they are pretty much the same in taste and nutritional composition). Flax was given the name Linum usitatissimum, which in Latin means “the most useful”. Believe it or not, but flaxseeds ranks the highest out of any healthy superfood for its high omega-3 fatty acid content, with ALA (alpha linolenic acid) topping the charts.
People have been eating flaxseeds for centuries for the known health benefits – dating all the way back to the 8th century, King Charlemagne made his loyal subjects eat the seeds because he believed that flax was incredibly good for one’s health. No wonder why these ground flecks of wholesomeness are used as a key ingredient in MySuperSnacks – what a great way to incorporate essential nutrients into your children’s snack! Unlike many other types of healthy fats in foods, the ALA in flaxseed has found to be stable for at least 3 hours of cooking at oven temperatures (i.e. 300 degrees F/150 degrees C), which makes it bioavailable to the body after ground flaxseeds have been added to baked goods like muffins, breads, or things like MySuperSnacks. Did you also know that modern research has shown that flaxseeds can also help reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease? Flaxseeds are also unique in the sense that they offer nutritional benefits that are found across the board, unlike most seeds.
The Many Health Benefits of Flaxseeds:
Antioxidant Properties and Lignans – lignans exhibit great antioxidant qualities, as they are one of the major classes of phytoestrogens (estrogen-like chemical compounds that are able to scavenge free radicals in the body). The lignans alter the way your body metabolizes estrogens into safer forms. Among all foods commonly eaten by humans, flaxseed is considered to be one of the best sources of lignans (0.3 g per 100g) according to researchers. Sesame seeds come in second, but contain only one-seventh of the total lignans as flaxseeds. To give a few further examples, flaxseeds contain about 350 time more lignans than sunflower seeds, 475 times as many lignans as cashews nuts, and 3,200 times as many lignans as peanuts. When flaxseeds are compared with other commonly eaten foods in terms of their total polyphenol content (polyphenols are one very important group of antioxidants), flaxseeds rank 9th among 100 commonly eaten foods. Flaxseeds turn out to be significantly higher in polyphenol antioxidants than fruits like blueberries or vegetables like olives.
Oxidative stress (which is often related to deficient intake of antioxidant nutrients) and excessive inflammation (which can also be related to deficient intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients) are common risk factors for a wide variety of health problems. Consuming about 2 tablespoons of flaxseeds per day has proven to help offset these health concerns.
Fiber – flaxseed is rich in both soluble fiber (which dissolves in water) and insoluble fiber (which does not dissolve in water); in fact, 2 tablespoons provide about 4-5 g of fiber! According to the Mayo Clinic: “soluble fiber dissolves with water and creates a gel-like substance that helps to lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels.” Whereas insoluble fiber “absorbs water which adds bulk to your digestive tract and helps to move things through quickly.” Flaxseeds have a high mucilage (gum) content (translation: “mucilage” refers to water-soluble, gel-forming fiber that can provide special support to the intestinal tract. For example, gums can help prevent the too-rapid emptying of the stomach contents into the small intestine, thereby improving absorption of certain nutrients in the small intestine, which is always a good thing, especially in growing bodies!).
Omega-3 fatty acids – these essential acids are only obtained by eating the right foods (the body cannot produce them) and are considered to be “good fats” that are beneficial for the heart. The primary omega-3 fatty acid in flaxseeds – the shorter chain omega-3 called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) can be helpful to the cardiovascular system in and of itself because it’s the building block for other molecules that help prevent excessive inflammation (but should not act as a replacement for fish or fish oil supplements that contain DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and EPA [ecosapentaenoic acid]). This is important to help protect the blood vessels from inflammatory damage. When flaxseeds are consumed, two other omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to increase in the bloodstream, namely, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which then helps provide even more inflammatory protection.
Have you ever seen eggs or other animal products touting the claim “animals fed flaxseeds for added omega-3 benefit” on their labels? There are numerous studies on the content of beef, chicken, and eggs that reflect significantly increased omega-3 content in these foods when flaxseed meal and/or flaxseed oil are added to the diets of cows and chickens. For individuals who enjoy these foods in their meal plan on a regular basis, this increased omega-3 content can really add up. Next time you are in the store, keep your eye out for this claim on the labels of some manufacturers of beef, chicken, and eggs. Consumption of certified organic animal foods in which flaxseed was added to the animals’ feed can be an effective way of increasing your omega-3 intake.
Protecting against cancer – consuming flaxseed may help protect against prostate, colon, and breast cancers due to their antioxidant properties and anti-inflammation properties (breast cancer and prostate cancer are included in the list of cancers known as “hormone-related” cancers; their risk reduction may be more closely related to flaxseed than risk reduction for other cancers due to the high lignan content of flaxseed). The lignans provided by flaxseed have also been shown to spark increased activity by certain detoxification enzymes that are responsible for deactivating toxins in the body, which in turn supports the detox process and may help prevent accumulation of toxins that might otherwise act as carcinogens and increase cancer risk. Additionally, flaxseed is thought to prevent the growth of cancerous cells because its omega-3 fatty acids disrupt malignant cells from clinging onto other body cells. The lignans in flaxseed have antiangiogenic properties – meaning, they stop tumors from forming new blood vessels.
Cardiovascular Health and Cholesterol-Lowering Benefits – researchers at Iowa State University found that cholesterol levels lowered among men who included flaxseed in their diet. One researcher noted that flaxseeds are a safe alternative for statin drugs like Lipitor (which have their own slew of health concerns now). Intake of flaxseeds has also been shown to decrease the ratio of LDL-to-HDL cholesterol in several human studies and to increase the level of apolipoprotein A1, which is the major protein found in HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). This HDL-related benefit may be partly due to the simple fiber content of flaxseeds.
Decreased Insulin Resistant and Improved Blood Sugar Levels – there is strong evidence to suggest that consuming flaxseed everyday improves glycemic control in obese men and women with pre-diabetes, according to a study published in Nutrition Research. The strong fiber content, antioxidant content, and anti-inflammatory content of flaxseeds make them a natural here.
Protecting Against Radiation –researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that a diet of flaxseed may protect skin tissue from being damaged by radiation due to its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Some Things to Take Note of When Consuming Flaxseeds:
Flaxseeds can be purchased either whole or already ground, and in many cases, I find products like cereals or nutrient bars/snacks that are made with flaxseeds are left whole. While the two different forms offer distinct benefits, I greatly feel that ground flaxseeds are best due to their digestibility and way in which your body can utilize the nutrients. In all honesty, I feel that eating whole flaxseeds just pass through your system, as your body cannot digest or break them down easily, if at all. Additionally, consider the fact that because flaxseeds can be very difficult to chew, grinding of the seeds before consuming greatly increases their digestibility. However, some people feel that grinding at home takes time, and pre-ground flaxseeds can have great convenience. As great as pre-ground flaxseeds are, while more convenient, also come with a shorter shelf life as whole flaxseeds. I actually recommend that you buy whole flaxseeds and spend the extra minute to grind them yourself. If you do buy pre-ground flaxseeds, please note that even when carefully packaged in a gas-flushed, light-protective pouch and refrigerated after opening, will typically only last about 6-16 weeks. Whole flaxseeds, on the other hand, will typically last for 6-12 months when stored in an airtight container in a dark, cool dry spot. If directly refrigerated, they may last for 1-2 years. The reason for all of this extra precaution is simple: once flaxseeds are ground, they are much more prone to oxidation and spoilage. Similarly, if you are grinding whole flaxseeds on your own at home (for example, in a small spice or coffee grinder), you’ll want to store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container. If using glass, you may also want to use a darkened glass as that will lessen exposure of the ground flaxseeds to light.
Grind flaxseeds in a coffee, seed, or spice grinder in order to enhance their digestibility and therefore their nutritional value. I personally use a Cuisinart spice grinder to easily and quickly grind my flaxseeds (I’ll grind several tablespoons at once and store the rest in a glass container in the refrigerator for the next day or two to save me time). 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.
Ground flaxseeds are usually available both refrigerated and non-refrigerated. If you are purchasing ground flaxseed that is sitting on the store shelf at room temperature, it is highly recommended that the flaxseed be packaged in a gas-flushed, vacuum-sealed bag. If you are purchasing ground flaxseed that is found in the refrigerator section, it’s not essential that vacuum-sealed packaging be used, but it can still be helpful from a food quality standpoint. Regardless of the form in which you purchase your ground flaxseeds, you should keep their container in the refrigerator after opening. When looking to buy flaxseeds, 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, either store them in an airtight container in a dark, dry and cool place or place their airtight container directly in the refrigerator.
You may have even seen flaxseed oil available for purchase in the store. Because of the high-oxidative rate of flaxseed once ground, flaxseed oil is especially perishable and should always be purchased in opaque bottles that have been kept refrigerated. Look out for spoiled flaxseed oil – which happens often if not stored properly. Fresh flaxseed oil should have a sweet nutty flavor and nothing along the lines of being bitter. It is never recommended to use flaxseed oil in cooking, since it is far too easily oxidized and can become “damaged” by heat, which in turn, makes it an unhealthy oil for you to consume. However, it’s fine to add flaxseed oil to foods after they have been cooked because the heat is not enough to raise the temperature enough to cause damage.
As wonderful as flaxseeds are for our health, there are a few side effects associated with their consumption, as noted (and these are most common due to the high fiber content and/or if whole flaxseeds are consumed versus ground [or not ground well enough]):
Despite a huge backing of scientific research, consuming high doses of flaxseed (4 tablespoons or more per day) when pregnant has raised some concerns due the estrogen-like properties of the seed which doctors believe could affect pregnancy outcome. This is not saying that flaxseed is bad for pregnant women – just be sure not to over-indulge in it daily!
In addition, due to the high fiber content and ability to help the body make bowel movements, people suffering from a bowel obstruction should avoid flaxseed to help prevent further complications in the digestive tract.
One last area of concern is a random study from Canada that highlighted the concern of flaxseeds and the cardiovascular system involving 30 children and teens (ages 8-18), all previously diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol) and given added flaxseed in their diets over a period of 4 weeks. The flaxseed amount was 2 tablespoons, and the form was ground flaxseeds incorporated into breads and muffins. In this study, blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol did not significantly change, but blood fat levels (in the form of triglycerides) increased and HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) decreased. Since these changes in blood lipids would be deemed to be unwanted, it is regarded that this study raises some preliminary questions about the role of daily flaxseeds in amounts of 2 tablespoons or above in the diet of children and teenagers who are already known to have high cholesterol. Much more research is needed in this area, but if you are the parent of a child or teen who is already diagnosed with high cholesterol, it is recommended that you consult with your healthcare provider about the pros and cons of incorporating flaxseeds into your child’s meal plan on a daily basis in any substantial amount.
Recommended Intake Amount
Based upon research and public health recommendations, a combination of nuts and seeds, including flaxseeds (that adds up to 3 tablespoons [1.5 ounces, or 42 grams]) per day is a dietary step well worth taking for most people.
Nutritional value of Flaxseed per 100 g (3.5 oz)
|– Sugars||1.55 g|
|– Dietary fiber||27.3 g|
|– saturated||3.663 g|
|– monounsaturated||7.527 g|
|Thiamine (Vit B1)||1.644 mg (143%)|
|Riboflavin (vit. B2)||0.161 mg (13%)|
|Niacin (vit. B3)||3.08 mg (21%)|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||0.985 mg (20%)|
|Vitamin B6||0.473 mg (36%)|
|Folate (vit. B9)||0 μg (0%)|
|Vitamin C||0.6 mg (1%)|
|Calcium||255 mg (26%)|
|Iron||5.73 mg (44%)|
|Magnesium||392 mg (110%)|
|Phosphorus||642 mg (92%)|
|Potassium||813 mg (17%)|
|Zinc||4.34 mg (46%)|
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Wondering What to Do With Flaxseeds!??! A Few Quick Serving Ideas:
- One popular technique is to incorporate ground flaxseeds into your muffin, cookie, or bread recipes.
- Sprinkle ground flaxseeds onto your hot or cold cereal.
- Add ground flaxseeds to smoothies to pump up their nutritional volume.
- Sprinkle ground flaxseeds in with plain yogurt and some fresh fruit to make a healthy and homemade low-sugar treat packed with nutrient goodness.
- To give cooked vegetables a nuttier flavor, sprinkle some ground flaxseeds on top of them.
How do you use your flaxseeds? Share your ideas here!
– University of Maryland Medical Center
– McKinley Health Center
– Iowa State NWRC
– Medical News Today
– The World’s Healthiest Foods (www.whfoods.com)
– Victoria Maizes, MD
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Nutrition and Health Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Nutrition & Health Coaching (of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC). Megan educates and empowers men, women, and children of all ages to learn the true ins-and-outs of “feeding the brain with knowledge about the best foods and habits for one’s body” in order to reach optimal health and wellness potentials. Visit her website today to learn more: www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us or feel free to send her an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.