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Healthy lifestyle: The power of the littleflaxseed

Published:Saturday | September 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, Contributor

Although much has been said about flaxseed as a superfood, you may not know enough about flaxseed and its derivatives.

Flaxseed, also known linseed, is the seed of the flax plant, which is believed to have originated in Egypt. Some persons say flaxseed is one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet in reducing health conditions like heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. That is great batting for a tiny seed that has been around for centuries.

Flaxseed was cultivated in Babylon as early as 3000 BC, according to the Flax Council of Canada. By the 8th century, King Charlemagne believed so strongly in the health benefits of flaxseed that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume it. Fast-forward 13 centuries and researchers have found preliminary evidence to back up what Charlemagne suspected years ago (WebMD).

Fibrous plant

What does the plant look like? Flax is an annual plant which grows fairly tall. It grows throughout Canada and the north-western United States, as well as in wide areas of other temperate and subtropical regions of both hemispheres. When fully mature, flaxseed will produce blue or white flowers depending on the variety. The blue-flower variety produces fine, good-quality fibre whereas the white-flower plant produces stronger but coarser fibre.The stalk of the plant is predominantly fibre which is found between the outer epidermis and the central woody tissue. The fibre, which is very high in cellulose, is extracted by retting (rotting either by water or dew) and then by 'scotching' the stalks.

Apart from its health benefits, flaxseed fibre is known for its great strength, fineness and durability which make it stronger than cotton when wet. After retting, the straw is dried and then scutched, a process which by mechanical means breaks down the pith, or 'boon', and removes it as completely as possible from the fibre (Wigglesworthfibre.com).

Linen cloth

Flax was woven into linen cloth in the Egyptian dynasties more than 4,000 years ago. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, linen made from flax was the most commonly used textile material in Europe, and it was not until the early part of the 19th century that cotton took the lead position. Apart from its commercial textile production, flax is grown widely for flaxseed oil from its oil-yielding seed, especially in places like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and China.

Fibre and constipation

Flaxseed is highly fibrous and ideally acts as a bulk-forming laxative for treating constipation. Whether it is the seeds, flax meal, or powders, they all absorb water in the stomach and intestines, increasing the bulk which helps with movement of stool. This is why it is advised to take flaxseed with a full glass of water. Flaxseed contains soluble fibre, like that found in oat bran, and may have a laxative effect. It is found in many forms, including cracked or whole flaxseeds, flax meal, flaxseed oil, or flaxseed powder.

Powerful antioxidant

Flaxseed is considered a dietary supplement and is available from health food stores and pharmacies. Flaxseed is rich in B vitamins and has significant amounts of magnesium and manganese. Flaxseed contains powerful antioxidants, especially lignin found in plants. According to everydayhealth.com, flaxseed is a mega-source of the plant version of omega-3 known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Flaxseed oil has five times more ALA than walnut oil or canola oil.

Health benefits

What are the health benefits of flaxseed that makes tiny flaxseed so popular?

Lowers cholesterol: Studies of flaxseed preparations to lower cholesterol levels have shown that cholesterol-lowering effects were more apparent in postmenopausal women and in people with high initial cholesterol concentrations. Eating flaxseed daily may help your cholesterol levels too. Small particles of LDL, or 'bad' cholesterol, in the bloodstream have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Cholesterol-lowering effects of flaxseed are the result of the synergistic benefits of omega-3 ALA; fibre and phyto-oestrogen lignan.

Lower blood sugar levels through the high-fibre content of flaxseed.

Protects the heart: Alpha-linolenic acid found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil may benefit people with heart disease. Research suggests that plant omega-3s help the cardiovascular system via several different mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory action and normalising the heartbeat. Diets rich in flaxseed omega-3s may help prevent hardening of the arteries and keep plaque from being deposited in the arteries, partly by keeping white blood cells from sticking to the blood vessels' inner linings.

Reduces hot flashes: Study results are mixed on whether flaxseed decreases hot flashes.

Fights cancer: Preliminary studies show that flaxseed may have a significant role in fighting cancer, especially that of the breast and colon. It is believed that the high concentration of lignan in flax inhibits tumour growth.

Weight management: When taken, flaxseed will expand making you feel fuller so you eat less. It is best to take flaxseed 30 minutes before meals to curb your appetite.

Dosage: How much flaxseed do you need? The optimum dose to obtain health benefits is still being investigated. However, 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day is currently the suggested dose, according to the Flax Council of Canada.

While flaxseed is safe, if you are taking medication you should advise your doctor that you are using flaxseed as it may contain substances which may interact with the medication you are taking. If you are scheduled to have surgery or dental work, you should advise your dentist, surgeon and anaesthesia specialist that you are taking flax.

Side effects

What are the side effects from taking flaxseed? It is possible to have allergic reaction to flaxseed as it is of plant origin. If a rash appears when you start using flaxseed, you should stop using it. Serious side effects are rare and can be prevented by taking the flaxseed with plenty of water. Possible side effects of flaxseed include:

Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing

Itching

Skin blisters

Sores or blisters in the mouth, eyes, lips, or nose

Swelling of any area of the lips, throat, tongue, skin, or body

Vomiting

Flaxseed caution

Not all claims about flaxseed are believable, as enough research has not been done to establish the facts. Persons with inflammatory bowel conditions should not consume flaxseed because of its laxative effect. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take flaxseed, as are women with fibroids, endometriosis and polycystic ovarian disease. Men who have prostate cancer should avoid flaxseed because of the ALA.

Tips for using flaxseed

Ground is better. Many experts believe it is better to consume flaxseed than flax oil (which contains just part of the seed) to get all the components. Ground flaxseed is a great first choice but there may be specific situations where flax oil may be good. Flaxseed, when eaten whole, is more likely to pass through the intestinal tract undigested, which means your body does not get all the healthful components. If you want to grind flaxseed yourself, those little electric coffee grinders seem to work best.

Milled = ground = flax meal. Do not be confused by the different product names for ground flaxseed. Milled or ground flaxseed is the same thing as flax meal.

Brown or golden? Golden flaxseed is easier on the eyes, but brown flaxseed is easier to find in most supermarkets. There is very little difference nutritionally between the two.

Check the product label. When buying products containing flaxseed, check the label to make sure ground flaxseed, not whole flaxseed, was added. Flaxseed is a featured ingredient in several products including cereals, pasta, wholegrain breads and crackers, energy bars, meatless meal products, and snack foods.

Make flaxseed a habit: Make it habit to add a couple tablespoons of flaxseed to foods like oatmeal, smoothies, soup, or yoghurt.

Camouflage flaxseed in dark, moist dishes. The dishes that hide flaxseed the best usually have a darkly coloured sauces or meat mixtures. No one tends to notice flaxseed when it is your casseroles, chili, casserole, beef stew, meat loaf or meatballs.

Flaxseed oil has a nutty, sweet flavour and should not be used for cooking. It should be added to foods after they have been cooked.

Use it in baking. Substitute ground flaxseed for part of the flour in recipes for quick breads, muffins, rolls, bread, bagels, pancakes, and waffles. Try replacing 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the flour with ground flaxseed if the recipe calls for 2 or more cups of flour.

Storing flaxseed

Keep it in the freezer. The best place to store ground flaxseed is the freezer. Freeze pre-ground flaxseed in the bag you bought it in, or in a plastic sealable bag if you ground it yourself. The freezer will keep the ground flax from oxidising and losing its nutritional potency.

Whole flaxseed keeps longer. The outside shell in whole flaxseed appears to keep the fatty acids inside well protected. It is a good idea to keep your whole flaxseed in a dark, cool place until you grind it. As long as it is dry and of good quality, whole flaxseed can be stored at room temperature for up to a year.

Flaxseed oil should be cold-pressed and purchased in opaque bottles and refrigerated.

ORANGE BRAN FLAX MUFFINS

11/2 cups oat bran

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup flaxseed

1 cup natural bran

1 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 whole oranges, (washed, quartered and seeded)

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup milk

1/2 cup canola oil

2 eggs

1 tsp baking soda

11/2 cup raisins

METHOD

1. In a large bowl, combine oat bran, flour, flaxseed, bran, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

2. In a blender or food processor, combine oranges, brown sugar, milk, oil, eggs and baking soda. Blend well.

3.Stir in raisins.

4. Fill paper lined muffin tins almost to the top.

5. Bake at 375F for 18-20 minutes or until wooden toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean.

6. Cool in tins five minutes before removing to cooling rack.

Source: Flaxmatters.com