|As flaxseed flexes its nutritional muscle, more users are bulking up their diets with this fiber-rich plant.
Flax is cultivated for its fiber, which is used to make linen, and it also figures into the production of linseed oil and linoleum. In fact, its scientific name translates as "most useful," and the variety of uses to which it's put supports that designation.
But it's the seeds, which vary in color from deep amber to a reddish brown, that are now garnering the most nutritional attention. Flaxseeds, and in some instances the flaxseed oil that's cold-pressed from the seeds, have been widely touted for a number of health benefits.
So far it's the ability of flaxseeds to relieve constipation that has received the most scientific support. To see why for yourself, try this simple experiment: Soak whole flaxseeds in water for several hours and notice the thick gelatinous goo that forms. That's the mucilage in the seeds, which absorbs water and acts as a natural stool softener. "It's a source of lignans, a type of fiber. That's where the laxative effect comes in," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D. and a member of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee.
"We know it's a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid," says Kris-Etherton. ALA is a precursor to the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, abundant in fish and fish oil and linked to a reduction in the incidence of sudden heart attacks. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA inefficiently, so flaxseed and its oil shouldn't be considered a direct substitute for fish and fish oil. The jury is still out on whether consuming ALA by itself helps protect the heart. However, epidemiological evidence from the long-term Nurses' Health Study - one of the largest observational studies ever done on health risk factors in women - suggests it may.
|There's some evidence that 1 to 1½ ounces of flaxseed a day might help decrease menopausal symptoms. But Kris-Etherton says research is preliminary and findings to date have been inconsistent.
You have several choices for enjoying the benefits of flax. Start your day with a cereal such as Publix GreenWise Market Flax Flakes All Natural Cereal. Or include whole or ground flaxseed, as well as Publix Flax Oil with Omega-3 supplements, in your daily diet. The recipe below even shows how to incorporate flaxseed in your salad dressing.
Whole flaxseeds have a longer shelf life than ground ones because of their hard shells. However, they need to be ground for maximum benefit. Use a clean coffee grinder or your blender. Store ground seeds and oil in your refrigerator to slow oxidation.
Toast 1 tablespoon flaxseeds in a shallow baking pan at 350ºF for 10 minutes. Cool, then grind them into a fine powder. Whisk together the ground flaxseeds, 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon water, 1 tablespoon chopped green onion, 2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard and 1 clove garlic, minced. Makes about ½ cup salad dressing.