Flaxseeds seem to be popping up everywhere these days, so I thought I would do a little exploration to find out what makes these little seeds so desirable.
Flaxseeds and Omega-3 Fatty Acids Flaxseeds big claim to fame is the presence of an Omega-3 fatty acid – specifically alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids because our bodies can’t produce them. We have to get these fatty acids from external sources like fish, flaxseeds, nuts, and other seeds. They’re important for cell membranes, blood pressure regulation, and other body functions. Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with all sorts of good body effects – including anti-inflammatory benefits (so they may help reduce inflammation associated with asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and migraines), high blood pressure prevention and control, lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar, and lowering the risk of certain cancers.
Alpha linolenic acid is a type of plant-derived fatty acid. It’s also a precursor to eicospentaenoic acid (EPA), which is one of the beneficial fatty acids found in fish oil. ALA can be converted to EPA in the body through an enzymatic process. The enzyme that drives this conversion is less available or less active in some people, so ALA conversion to EPA is different from person to person. While it is clear that ALA consumption does have benefits, it is unclear whether the ALA itself is the beneficial actor or if it is the ALA that has converted to EPA and the subsequent EPA that produces the benefits. It does appear that higher amounts of flaxseeds or flax oil must be consumed to provide the same benefits one would get from the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.
Other Benefits of Flaxseeds In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds are also a good source of lignans as well as both soluble and insoluble fiber. The fiber can help lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels. Flaxseed is also high in manganese and has a good amount of magnesium folate, copper, phosphorous, and vitamin B6.
Which form to use? There are three forms of flaxseed available for consumption – whole flaxseeds, flax meal, or flaxseed oil. Whole flaxseeds are not easily digested by our bodies and are likely to pass through undigested, which means that none of the nutritional benefits are realized. For this reason, ground flaxseed is recommended. Flaxseed oil is a good option for the omega-3 fatty acids, but it doesn’t have the beneficial fiber and lignan that the seeds have.
Ways to use flaxseed To get more flaxseed in your diet, try adding a couple of tablespoons of flaxseed meal to your baked goods. The flavor is fairly neutral and will blend right in. I add it to everything I can think of - cookies, bread, even spaghetti sauce. You can also add raw flaxseed meal to cereals, smoothies, yogurt, etc. (but see Flaxseed concerns below).
Flaxseed meal can even be used as an egg replacer. There are several different different ways to do this, but here's what I generally do. Mix 1 part flax meal (ground fresh in a blender from raw flaxseeds) with 3 parts water. Boil until the mixture becomes kind of thick and slimy. Use about a 1/4 cup to replace 1 egg. The mixture will keep for about a week in the fridge.
Flaxseed concerns Raw flax seed contains the hydrogen cyanide or cyanogenic glucosides, which can be toxic if consumed in large quantities. But, raw flaxseed can still be very safely consumed in moderation – 2 tablespoons is a safe amount for most people. Cooking flaxseed rids it of the offending compounds completely.
Care should be taken when consuming flaxseed while on oral medication, as the fiber content in flaxseed can interfere with the effectiveness of some oral medications. Omega-3 fatty acids can result in thinner blood, so talk with your doctor about the continued use of any omega-3 supplements (whether fish oil or flax) before a medical procedure.
Bottomline For me, it boils down to this – I’m adding flax meal to my baked goods whenever possible. There are just so many benefits to using it. I am not, however, replacing my fish oil consumption (mainly in the form of supplements for me) with flaxseeds.