The World's Healthiest Foods
Flaxseeds

The warm, earthy and subtly nutty flavor of flax seeds 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 seeds and oil are available throughout the year; it is recommended to purchase refrigerated packages of ground flaxseeds and oil because they can spoil easily.

Flax seeds 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.

 


Health Benefits

Flaxseed oil is rich in alpha linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat that is a precursor to the form of omega-3 found in fish oils called eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. Alpha linolenic acid or 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 flaxseed oil must be consumed to provide the same benefits as the omega-3 fats found in the oil of cold-water fish.

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.

Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

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.

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, relieve the constipation or diarrhea of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers, and help 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 September 8, 2003 edition of 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, during which time 1,843 cases of coronary heart disease (CHD) and 3,762 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD) were diagnosed. 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.(December 3, 2003)

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 cancer in rats by more than 55%.

In a study published in the February 2004 issue of 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:

  • Levels of 2-hydroxyestrone, a less biologically active estrogen metabolite thought to be protective against breast cancer, increased significantly.
  • The ratio of 2 hydroxyestrone (the protective estrogen metabolite) to 16alpha-hydroxyestrone (an estrogen metabolite thought to promote cancer) increased.
  • Blood levels of the estrogen fractions (estradiol, estrone, and estrone sulfate) did not change significantly—which is important since estradiol is involved in maintaining bone mass.
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.(March 25, 2004)

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.

Description

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.

History

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.

How to Select and Store

How to Enjoy

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 flax seeds 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 flax seeds.

To give cooked vegetables a nuttier flavor, sprinkle some ground flaxseeds on top of them.

Add a tablespoon of flaxseed oil to smoothies.

Safety

Flaxseeds are not a commonly allergenic food and are not known to contain measurable amounts of goitrogens, oxalates, or purines.

Nutritional Profile

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 (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); 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. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Flax Seeds
2.00 tbs
95.33 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
omega 3 fatty acids 3.51 g 140.4 26.5 excellent
manganese 0.64 mg 32.0 6.0 very good
dietary fiber 5.41 g 21.6 4.1 very good
magnesium 70.14 mg 17.5 3.3 good
folate 53.86 mcg 13.5 2.5 good
copper 0.20 mg 10.0 1.9 good
phosphorus 96.49 mg 9.6 1.8 good
vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) 0.18 mg 9.0 1.7 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

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This page was updated on: 2005-07-07 22:15:37
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation