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Just the flax, Ma’am

Nutrition - Shape Cooks Winter 1998    By Leslie Carper

First there was oat bran; then there was soy.  Now the tiny flaxseed is being touted as the newest “super-food”. Yet this hardy little seed has been around forever.  The Babylonians cultivated it as early as 3,000 B.C. In the eighth century, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, considered it so valuable, he mandated laws governing its consumption.  And Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Whenever flaxseed becomes a regular food item, there will be better health.”

Flax, also know as linseed, is used in paint, varnish and linen fabric – hardly an appealing sounding ingredient.  Yet flaxseed packs five times as much fiber as oatmeal, 75 times the amount of antioxidants in broccoli, and six times the phytoestrogens of soy. (It’s also rich in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium.)  This seemingly insignificant member of the grain family provides these nutritional boosts with the help of two important substances that have been making nutrition news: Lignin (a type of phytochemical) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). All of which just might translate into increased health benefits in the areas of heart disease, menopause symptoms, arthritis, and breast, colon and prostate cancers.

But how does it taste? “Pleasant” and “nutty”, said the majority of participants in a 1996 study conducted by the American Dietetic Association that compared banana-nut muffins and oatmeal cookies made with regular flour to those made with half regular flour and half ground flaxseed.  The majority of respondents said those made with the flour-flaxseed mixture tasted better and had a more satisfying texture than the others.

Health Benefits Galore

Science is now proving what Ghandi already knew: In terms of health benefits, the lignans and ALA in flax pack a serious nutritional punch. When plant lignans enter the digestive tract, the bacteria there convert them into phytoestrogens that may block the growth of hormone-related cancers – especially breast and colon tumors.

Although lignans are present in other grains, as well as in beans and vegetables, flax contains 75-800 times more than any other single food.  To get the lignin punch of a quarter of a cup of flax, you’d have to eat 100 slices of whole-wheat bread or 60 cups of broccoli!

In addition, flaxseed oil contains 50 percent alpha-linolenic acid, the essential fatty acid that converts into the omega-3s that help give fish its stellar nutritional reputation.  Omega-3s have been shown to ward off heart disease, arthritis, menstrual cramps, menopause symptoms and possible even depression.  Flaxseed is the best plant source of ALA, containing 40 percent more than canola oil, the next highest source.  The famed long-term Nurses’ Health Study launched in 1976 at Harvard Medical School, showed a 50 percent decreased risk of coronary heart disease – the No. 1 killer of women – in those who ate ALA-rich food.

The first study of flaxseed’s effects on cancer in humans is being conducted in Canada, the world’s largest flaxseed grower, by Lilian Thompson, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.  In Thompson’s earlier studies on lab rats, flaxseed lignans were shown not only to reduce the risk of breast cancer but also to slow its growth and spread.  “Human clinical studies are needed to confirm these results, but flaxseed has tremendous potential to positively affect our health,” Thompson says.

Her latest project is testing the effects of a daily muffin containing 25 grams (two heaping tablespoons) of ground flaxseed on 100 women with breast cancer to determine if it slows tumor growth between the time of diagnosis and surgery. (It’s important to note, however, that no food is a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.)

Although studies are inconclusive, researchers estimate that you can derive health benefits by consuming 6-25 grams of ground flaxseed daily. “Virtually everybody can benefit from adding flax to their diet,” says Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C.

How to Use It in the Kitchen

Flax bakes well, in part because of its high oil (read:fat) content. One tablespoon contains 36 calories and 2.6 grams of fat. But don’t let that scare you.  According to Cyndi Thompson, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, the nutritional benefits are worth the fat calories. She also points out that 73 percent of the fat in flax is the more healthful, polyunsaturated type.

Simopoulos offers this advice for getting flax into your diet without going overboard on fat: Substitute ground flaxseed for one-third of the oil or shortening in a recipe.  You also can substitute it for between 15 percent and 20 percent of the flour in baked goods – a get a nutty flavor boost. (Be sure to watch cooking time: Flaxseed tends to brown rapidly.)  Flaxseed adds flavor to yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, juices, smoothies or soups, and it makes a slightly crunchy addition to salads, casseroles, meatloaf and burgers.  

Although flax must be ground in order to be absorbed by the body, it’s best to buy whole flaxseed because it keeps longer.  Whole or ground flaxseed can be found at health-food stores and specialty grocery stores; whole flax can be kept for up to a year in an airtight container stored at room temperature, then ground as needed in a coffee grinder or food processor.  Leftover ground flax can be refrigerated in an opaque container for up to a month, but it’s best if used promptly.

Flaxseed oil should never be used in frying or baking because when it is heated, the oil oxidizes, becoming harmful if eaten. Kept cool, the light, nutty oil makes a delicious dressing for salads or pasta.  The ground seed delivers much more lignin than the oil, which should always be refrigerated (open or not) and used with four to eight weeks of the date of purchase.

Leslie Carper is a free-lance writer in Alexandria, Va.

Rye-Flax Bread

Makes 2 10 slice loaves

1 tablespoon maple or rice syrup

3 cups 1% milk at room temperature, plus 1/3 cup for brushing on loaves.

1 tablespoon granulated yeast

1 cup milled flaxseed

¼ cup dark miso paste

¼ cup caraway seeds

2 ½ cups unbleached white flour

1 ¼ cups rye flour

1 ½ cups whole-wheat flour

Prep time: 20 min.; rising: 45-60 min.; cook: 90 min.

In a large bowl, combine syrup and ½ cup milk. Sprinkle yeast over top.

In a food processor, blend flaxseed, miso paste and 2 ½ cups milk 4-5 minutes, or until thick.  Add to yeast mixture.  Add caraway seeds and white flour.  Cover bowl and set aside in a warm place to rise 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until mixture has doubled in volume.

After dough has risen, gradually knead in rye flour.  Sprinkle ½ cup whole-wheat flour onto work surface and continue kneading, adding remaining whole-wheat flour ½ cup at a time until well-incorporated.

Form dough into 2 loaves, turn out onto a nonstick cookie sheet and let rise 45 minutes: or until doubled in volume.

Preheat oven to 325° F. Place dough in loaf pans, brush milk over top of each loaf and bake 90 minutes, or until crusts brown.

Per slice: 179 calories, 24% fat (4.8 grams; 0.9 gram saturated), 57% carbohydrate, 19% protein, 3.3 grams fiber, 9 grams flaxseed