Flaxseed is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, containing an abundance of dietary fiber, and is thought to help lower cholesterol as well as to help slow the growth of certain tumors. Flaxseed is extremely versatile and can be used in many different dishes, such as a breading for fish or poultry, as an addition to a stew or soup, mixed into a shake or smoothie, or just sprinkled on top of yogurt or cereal.
Flaxseed is found in all kinds of today's foods from crackers to frozen waffles to oatmeal. The Flax Council estimates close to 300 new flax-based products were launched in the U.S. and Canada in 2010 alone. Not only has consumer demand for flaxseed grown, agricultural use has also increased. Flaxseed is what's used to feed all those chickens that are laying eggs with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Although flaxseed contains all sorts of healthy components, it owes its primary healthy reputation to three of them:
Omega-3 essential fatty acids, "good" fats that have been shown to have heart-healthy effects. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of plant omega-3s.
Lignans, which have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities. Flaxseed contains 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
Fiber. Flaxseed contains both the soluble and insoluble types.
The Health Benefits of Flax
Although Lilian Thompson, an internationally known flaxseed researcher from the University of Toronto, says she wouldn’t call any of the health benefits of flax "conclusively established," research indicates that flax may reduce risks of certain cancers as well as cardiovascular disease and lung disease.
Recent studies have suggested that flaxseed may have a protective effect against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. At least two of the components in flaxseed seem to contribute, says Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, director of health and nutrition with the Flax Council of Canada.
In animal studies, the plant omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseed called ALA inhibited tumor incidence and growth.
• Whole flax seed can be used as a healthy, crunchy breading or as a textured topping for frozen yogurt.
• Milled flaxseed is more commonly used as a flour substitute or a thickening agent. It can also be added to bread dough, pancake batter, and waffle batter.
• Linseed oil is typically consumed as a daily health supplement.
The lignans in flaxseed may provide some protection against cancers that are sensitive to hormones without interfering with the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. Thompson says some studies have suggested that exposure to lignans during adolescence helps reduce the risk of breast cancer and may also increase the survival of breast cancer patients.
Lignans may help protect against cancer by blocking enzymes that are involved in hormone metabolism and interfering with the growth and spread of tumor cells.
Some of the other components in flaxseed also have antioxidant properties, which may contribute to protection against cancer and heart disease.
Research suggests that plant omega-3s help the cardiovascular system through several different mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory action and normalizing the heartbeat. Fitzpatrick says new research also suggests significant blood pressure-lowering effects of flaxseed. Those effects may be due to both the omega-3 fatty acids as well as the amino acid groups found in flaxseed.
Preliminary research also suggests that daily intake of the lignans in flaxseed may modestly improve blood sugar (as measured by hemoglobin A1c blood tests in adults with type 2 diabetes).
Two components in flaxseed, ALA, and lignans, may reduce the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses (such as Parkinson's disease and asthma) by helping block the release of certain pro-inflammatory agents, Fitzpatrick says.
ALA has been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions in humans. And studies in animals have found that lignans can decrease levels of several pro-inflammatory agents.
Reducing inflammation associated with plaque buildup in the arteries may be another way flaxseed helps prevent heart attack and strokes.
One study of menopausal women, published in 2007, reported that 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed mixed with cereal, juice, or yogurt twice a day cut their hot flashes in half. The intensity of their hot flashes also dropped by 57%. The women noticed a difference after taking the daily flaxseed for just one week and achieved the maximum benefit within two weeks.
Flaxseed Isn't a Magic Bullet
It's tempting to think of flaxseed as a superfood because of its many potential health benefits. But keep in mind there is no magic food or nutrient that guarantees improved health.
What matters is consistently making great dietary choices as part of an overall healthy lifestyle