Flax seed, also known as linseed, is one of the ancient cultivated crops since Mesopotamian times, grown for its oil seeds and fiber. Its chewy seeds are packed with full of nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, minerals, and essential vitamins. Of late, health benefits of flax has widely drawn the attention of nutrition researchers as well as health enthusiasts alike across the planet.
Flax belongs to the family of Linaceae, of the genus of Linum, and botanically named as Linum usitatissimum.
|Flax seeds (L.usitatissimum).
(Photo courtesy: AlishaV)
|Golden yellow flax.
(Photo courtesy : AlishaV)
Flax is an erect annual plant growing about 1 to 1.5 meters tall and bears light-blue colored attractive flowers. It is one of the easily cultivated crops that flourishes well both in tropical as well as subtropical climates, with higher acreage production as a field crop noted in some fertile river valleys.
|Pale blue Linseed (flax) flowers.
(Photo courtesy: Acradenia)
Flax fruit pod is a round, dry capsule 6–9 mm diameter, containing several brown or golden-yellow seeds (depending on cultivar type). Its seeds feature smooth, glossy surface and flat shape that somewhat appear like sesame seeds, but quite larger, measuring about 5–7 mm in length.
In general, there exist two common cultivars of flax; one is predominantly grown for its oil seeds and the other variety for fiber. Seed flax generally features brown, and yellow or golden-yellow color seeds, with most types having similar nutritional values and equal amounts of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
As in other oil seeds, flax too is one of the very high-calorie dense foods. 100 g of seeds carry 534 calories or 27% of daily-required levels. Further, the seeds are an excellent source of numerous health-benefiting nutrients, dietary fiber (mucilage), minerals, antioxidants and vitamins that are essential for optimum health.
Flax seed is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid. It is also one of the top plant sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and arachidonic acids. Regular intake of small portions of flax seeds in the diet helps to lower total as well as LDL or “bad cholesterol” and increases HDL or “good cholesterol” levels in the blood. Research studies suggest that Mediterranean diet that is rich in fiber, monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids help to prevent coronary artery disease and stroke risks through favoring healthy blood lipid profile.
Flax seeds are perhaps one of the most widely available botanical sources of n-3 or omega-3 fatty acids. Flax seed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA (a-linolenic acid). One spoonful of flax seed oil provides about 8 g of omega-3 fatty acids. Research studies have suggested that n-3 fatty acids by their virtue of anti-inflammatory action may help lower the risk of blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes and breast, colon and prostate cancers. Adequate omega-3 levels are required for overall development and maturation of nervous system in infants.
The seeds contain lignans, a class of phytoestrogens considered to have antioxidant and cancer preventing properties.
Flax are an excellent source of vitamin E, especially rich in gamma-tocopherol; containing about 20 g (133% of daily-recommended values) per 100 g. vitamin E is a powerful lipid soluble antioxidant, required for maintaining the integrity of cell membrane of mucusa and skin by protecting it from harmful oxygen-free radicals.
The seeds are packed with many important B-complex groups of vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and folates. Thiamin is an essential co-factor for carbohydrate metabolism and helps prevent beri-beri disease. Folates help prevent neural tube defects in the fetus when consumed during pre-conception period and pregnancy.
Furthermore, flax seed is rich source of minerals like manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium.
Flax or linseed oil has flavorful nutty aroma and has been used in cooking, and as “carrier" or "base oil” in traditional medicines and in pharmaceutical uses.
Flax seeds can be available in the market year around. In the stores, one may come across
different forms of flax such as whole dry seeds, roasted, ground, etc.
Try to buy whole, golden-yellow flax seeds instead of ground
(powder) as it ensures that the seeds are intact in nutrients,
unadulterated and have a longer shelf life.
There are two varieties of flax seeds; brown and yellow or golden, with most types having similar nutritional values and almost same amounts of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds should feature bright, brown or golden-yellow (depending on the variety) color, smooth, compact, and uniform in size and feel heavy in hand. They are generally available in an airtight packs as well as in bulk bins.
Whole flax seeds may be placed in cool dry place for many months, while its powder form should be placed inside airtight container and kept inside the refrigerator to avoid turn rancid.
Gently toast them under low heat before use as food. Flax seeds are rich in poly-unsaturated fatty acids. Exposing flax powder to air for extended periods can oxidize their fatty acids and deprives them of their nutritional value. Therefore, generally, the seeds are ground in a coffee or nut/seed grinder just before use in order to preserve their nutrition-profile.
Toasted seeds can also be enjoyed as snacks either salted, or sweetened.
Flax seeds are nutty yet pleasantly sweet in taste. Ground seeds are a great addition on toppings in yogurt, desserts, smoothies, shakes, cereal based snacks, etc.
Toasted and ground seeds often sprinkled over salads, desserts, particularly sundaes and other icecream based preparations.
Gently toasted flax is widely used in the confectionery as an addition to biscuits, sweets, muffins and cakes.
Flax-seeds have no harmful effects on health when used in small quantities. However, its seeds contain lot of mucilage fiber in their outer coat which when eaten in large amounts may cause stomach pain, bloating, and laxative diarrhea. Eating raw flax seed is not advised for its possible risk of cyanogen-glycosides toxicity.
In addition, lignans in flax possess estrogen-like activity. It is therefore, excess consumption of flax, and its products may not be advised during pregnancy for its possible hormone interactions. (Medical disclaimer).
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Research articles on nutrition.
1. Refer StanfordMedicine cancer center information page-Nutrition to reduce cancer risk .
2. National center for complementary and alternative medicine: NCCAM: Flax seed.