A field of flax in purple bloom? Irresistible! A bag of little flax seeds in a health food store? Until now, a very tough sell. But that's about to change. Shoppers in the new millennium may see flax seed as an important new superfood. Stocked inside this lowly seed are two impressive compounds looking more and more like foes of heart attacks, breast and colon cancer, arthritis, severe menstrual cramps - even depression.
What's mind boggling is that flax seed has more of these two compounds - lignans and alpha-linolenic acid - than any other food....by far! In fact, top flax seed researcher Stephen Cunnane, PhD, of the University of Toronto, told us, "There's nobody who won't benefit from adding flax seed to his or her diet." If you're clueless about how to do that - like most everybody - read on. flax seed is a winner you'll want on your team.
Just the flax, ma'am
Every fall Canadian flax farmers, the world's top producers, harvest hard, shiny flax seeds - usually brown but sometimes gold - shaped like diminutive sesame seeds. What's inside each seed could be better health, spelled F-L-A-X:
"F" is for Fiber. It's amazing how much fiber a little flax contains. Just 1/4 cup of ground flax seed delivers 6 grams of fiber, as much fiber as 1-1/2 cups of cooked oatmeal! Studies prove that when flax seed is added to the diet, harmful LDL cholesterol drops, while good HDL cholesterol stays put, probably due to all that fiber (including the soluble kind). Regularity improves, as well. And most Americans need more fiber. We average less than 15g a day, about half the amount health authorities recommend to help reduce the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
"L" is for Lignans. Here's where the flax seed story starts racking up major points. Lignans are tantalizing plant-based compounds that can shrink existing breast and colon cancer tumors and stop new ones from getting started - at least in test-tube and animal studies. And flax seed has staggering lignan levels. Many plant foods have some lignans, but flax seed has at least 75 times more than any other. To get the lignans that are in just 1/4 cup of flax seed, you'd need to eat about 60 cups of fresh broccoli - or 100 slices of whole wheat bread.
The discovery of flax seed as a lignan storehouse came by sheer
chance says Kenneth Setchell, PhD, Children's Hospital Medical Center,
Cincinnati. In a study in 1978, he and his colleagues unexpectedly
found lignan levels in one patient several hundred times higher
than had ever been seen before. The patient, it turned out, baked
his own bread and always added flax seed.
Currently under way at the University of Toronto is the first study testing lignans against cancer in humans. One hundred women with breast cancer will eat a daily muffin with 25g of flax seed to see if it might reduce the growth of their tumors between the time of diagnosis and surgery, according to Dr. Lilian Thompson, PhD, who leads up the study. Important: Muffins are not a substitute for medical treatment. If you have breast cancer, seek or continue conventional care.
"A" is for Alpha-linolenic Acid. Back in January, we reported on mounting evidence that eating more omega-3 fats helps ward off fatal heart attacks, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, sever menstrual cramps and maybe even depression. Many researchers told us modern diets - even healthy ones - are routinely deficient in omega-3s.
Once again, flax seed turns out to be a mega-source, this time for the plant version of omega-3...called alpha-linolenic acid. The oil in flax seed is about 50% alpha-linolenic acid. Canola and walnut oils, the next highest sources, have about 10%. But most foods have far less. It would take 25 cups of peanut butter, for example, to get the alpha-linolenic acid in just 1/4 cup of ground flax seed. Although the animal version of omega-3 fat, found in fish oil, packs the most punch, research confirms that alpha-linolenic acid confers omega-3 benefits, too. So if you're a vegetarian or you don't eat fish regularly, says Dr. Cunnane, flax seed is your best omega-3 bet.
To get the most omega-3s, look for flax seed oil in natural food stores. But to get the entire flax arsenal...omega-3s plus lignans and fiber...look for products that deliver the entire flax seed milled fresh or click here. Note: You can use flax seed, but not flax seed oil, for baking; under sustained heat, flax seed oil (added as a separate ingredient) oxidizes and should not be consumed.
"X" is for Excellent move. Should you consider adding flax seed to your diet? "Absolutely," says Dr. Setchell. In terms of safety, flax seed has been consumed since the Stone Age - a rather venerable track record. Ironically, most flax seed is used today to make an inedible product - linseed oil, a component of paints and varnishes. (The word linseed by itself is simply an alternate word for flax seed.) Linseed oil is oil that's been chemically extracted from flax seeds and denatured - oxidized - which makes it unfit for human consumption.
Overcoming 'fear of flax'. "O.K., but how does this stuff taste?" you must be thinking. The verdict: Pleasantly Nutty. To get health benefits, researchers estimate you need anywhere from 6 to 25g a day (in ground flax seed, that works out to 1 level measuring tablespoon up to 1/4 cup). Note: Because a few people are highly allergic to flax, start by using less than 1/4 teaspoon a day, increasing gradually if no reactions occur.
Adding flax to your diet is easy: Try a sprinkle a day. Look for pre-ground flax seed (it's like cornmeal in consistency) with vitamins C and E added to stabilize it against oxidation. Sometimes small amounts of vitamin B6 and zinc are added, too; flax researchers aren't convinced these are necessary. Sprinkle 1 or more tablespoons in hot or cold cereal, yogurt, salad dressing, soup or fruit juice. Once a package of pre-ground flax seed is opened , keep it refrigerated; try to use within 6 months. Buy flax foods ready-made in breads, crackers and cereals.