As one of the oldest crops for food and fibres in the world, flax or linseed has been a part of our lives since civilisation began. In fact, the earliest evidence of humans using wild flax was found in the present-day region of the Republic of Georgia, where dyed, spun, and knotted flax fibres were discovered in the Dzudzuana Cave, dating back 30,000 years.
The plant prefers cool conditions, generally has blue flowers and two distinct forms of seeds; golden and brown. Both are edible and contain incredible properties that aid good health.
Not only are the seeds great for creating quality textiles, they are rich in protein and fibre, and low in carbohydrates, they have minimal saturates and are lauded as a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. While our bodies can make most types of fats it requires from the products of digestion, we cannot make critical omega-3 fatty acids.
These are essential for the maintenance of our cell membranes, in particular the specialised cells that make up our nervous system. They are also important in the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of artery walls and in controlling inflammation. In addition to this, essential fatty acids play a crucial part in the expression of our genes. Suffice to say that they are a really important part of our diet.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The first two are mainly found in fish, so not great for those of us who are vegetarian or vegan. ALA is the most common form in western diets, being found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and some animal fats.
Studies show that ALAs help to reduce the build up of cholesterol plaques in the blood vessels leading to the heart (Francis, 2013), lessens inflammation in arteries (Rodrigez-Leyva, 2010), and suppresses tumour growth in animals (Thompson, 1996).
Research undertaken in Costa Rica involving more than 3500 volunteers, found that those who ate ALA rich flax seeds had a lower risk of heart attacks compared to a control group (Campos, 2008). Similarly, a review of studies comprising a total of 250,000 participants, showed a statistically lower risk of heart disease (An Pan, 2012) and strokes (Blondeau, 2015) in association with the consumption of ALA.
The great thing about flax, is that it contains more than just ALA. It provides us with vitamins B1 and B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, although not in sufficient quantities to supply the recommended daily allowances. Flax also contains plant compounds called lignans. These chemicals have anti-oxidant and oestrogenic properties, which have been shown in studies to lessen the risk of developing cancer, namely breast (Lowcock, 2013), prostate (Demark-Wahnefried, 2004), and potentially skin and colon cancers (Touré, 2010).
According to Morris (2007), flax seeds contain 800 times more lignans than any other plant-based source.
In addition to all these wonderous benefits flax has to offer, the plant is an abundant source of soluble fibre, which not only keeps you regular, but slows down the rate of digestion, thus helping us to control appetite (Wanders, 2011), regulates blood sugars and lower cholesterol (Kristensen, 2012).
Scientists believe that the fibre in flax seeds binds to bile salts which is then excreted through the bowel. Our bodies sense that bile salts are low, forcing our livers to make more. A part of this process involves absorbing cholesterol from our blood so that it is less likely to cause plaques and blockages in our vessels. (Kristensen, 2012).
Another research team led by Stephanie Caligiuri in 2014, showed that just 30 grams of flax seeds consumed daily for six months lowered patients’ blood pressure by a significant amount. Those of their patients already taking medication for their condition saw a further decrease in blood pressure by an average of 17% after eating daily quantities of flax seeds.
Some scientists suggest that positive benefits can be seen in as few as three months of flax seed supplements.
Others have indicated a possibility that flax has improved the immune systems of animals during trials (Rabetafika, 2011) and have an antifungal effect on Candida albacans, Aspergillus flavus, and Alternaria solani (Xu, 2008).
How can I use flax in my food?
With all these incredible compounds on offer, you might be thinking of how you can integrate flax seeds into your diet. Although the whole seeds are edible, they are coated in a tough shell which is hard for our digestive system to break down. That makes it difficult to absorb the beneficial nutrients.
The best way to incorporate flax seeds is to grind it into a powder and store it in an airtight container. That way you will always have some handy as an ingredient for dishes and drinks. Sprinkled onto yoghurts, smoothies, oatmeal, muesli, or granola is a great way to start your day, or you could add it to cake mixes, batters, bread flour, hummus, burger patties, or use it in crumb coatings.
It’s also possible to buy flaxseed oil, but don’t confuse it with the versions created for industrial purposes (linseed oil). The edible form is usually cold pressed in food grade preparation facilities. Since some of its properties are heat sensitive, it’s not really suitable for dishes cooked at high temperatures. It’s also worth noting that using the oil, or taking capsule versions of flax won’t provide you with the beneficial fibre of the seeds themselves.
A word of caution
While up to 50 grams of flax seeds will boost health, any more than that may cause issues, since some trace elements can cause a reaction in the stomach if eaten in large quantities, in much the same way as huge amounts of apple or cherry pips will do. As with anything in life, maintaining a balance is key with achieving good health.
Take care, everyone, and stay well.