Flaxseeds (flax), tiny and unassuming, may not garner a second glance, but this humble little seed is a big crowd pleaser.
One of the oldest cultivated crops, flaxseed has been fully utilized by ancient civilizations. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen cloth made from the flax plant. Equally important was its use as food and medicine. Hippocrates, the Greek “Father of Medicine,” prescribed flax to ease intestinal issues, like constipation. It was also used to make a poultice to treat boils and abscesses. Flaxseed, known as linseed in Europe, is perhaps best coveted today for its impressive list of health benefits.
The Latin name for flaxseed is Linum usitatissimum, which means “very useful.” There are brown and yellow or golden varieties. Both are sold as whole flax, milled flaxseed meal and flaxseed oil. (In the U.S., linseed oil is an ingredient in paints and varnish and is used to treat wood. It’s not safe for human consumption.) Flax is packed with health-protecting superstars, including omega-3 fatty acids –– it is the richest plant source –– antioxidants, including beta-carotene, and both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Just one 2-tablespoon serving of flax meal delivers 16 percent DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day) of dietary fiber and only 60 calories.
A good source of soluble fiber, flax has been shown to help reduce total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, (Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2016). Several studies have linked flax consumption to lower blood pressure, another benefit that may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis of 11 studies concluded that flax may help reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, but results may be greater when whole seeds are consumed for more than 12 weeks (Journal of Nutrition, 2015). Flax also shows anticancer potential. Animal and human clinical trials link flax to decreased cell growth and reduced tumor size (Frontiers in Nutrition, 2018).
The finer points
Available whole, milled into a meal or flour, and as oil, flax foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which means they can go rancid when exposed to heat, light, and air. Refrigerate or freeze for best quality and longest life. Enjoy flax or flaxmeal with most any food. Sprinkle onto cereal, yogurt, salad and roasted vegetables, mix into smoothies, soups, stews, egg dishes and casseroles, or bake flax into muffins, cookies and breads.