It might not be the most fashionable superfood, but when it comes to proven health benefits, flaxseed is definitely one of the very best. Andrew Hamilton explains why.
When Charles the Great ruled most of Western Europe in the early middle ages, so convinced was he about the health benefits of flaxseed, he passed a decree requiring all his subjects to consume it!
A bit extreme perhaps, but recent scientific studies suggests that he really was onto something because there’s growing evidence that flaxseed can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.
What is Flaxseed?
Flaxseed (which is also called linseed) is one of the oldest cultivated crops. Indeed, flaxseed was cultivated in Babylon as early as 3000BC, and is also known to have been cultivated in ancient Egypt and China. As the name suggests, flaxseed consists of small, oval-shaped seeds, which range in colour from light golden brown to a darker, more reddish brown.
These seeds are an extremely rich source of nutrients, including dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and the essential fatty acid known as alphalinolenic acid (ALA). ALA is also more popularly known as omega-3. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of omega-3. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are an essential component in the diet (because your body can’t make them).
In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are known to have heart health benefits – for example, lowering blood cholesterol and helping to reduce blood pressure. There’s also growing evidence that omega-3 fats can help normalise blood sugar (so helping to reduce the risk of blood sugar swings, or worse – diabetes), and help control inflammation in the body – e.g. reduce pain and stiffness in conditions such as arthritis.
And as if these benefits weren’t enough, increasing numbers of studies show that omega-3 fats are vital for brain health, helping to reduce the risk of depression and cognitive decline. Given the evidence above, it’s perhaps not
surprising that omega supplements (e.g. flaxseed oil) are so popular with consumers.
However, while flaxseed is a fantastic source of omega-3, it actually offers a lot more. In addition to omega-3, flaxseed is also rich in natural compounds called lignans. Lignans are one of the major classes of phytoestrogens, which are estrogen-like compounds with antioxidant qualities, able to scavenge free radicals in the body and so help reduce free-radical induced cell and DNA damage, which is linked to aging and degenerative diseases such as cancer.
Flaxseed is considered to be one of the very best sources of lignans (0.3g of lignans per 100g of flaxseed), containing around 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
The health benefits don’t stop there either because flaxseed is also rich in soluble and insoluble fibres. The soluble fibre is able to dissolve in water in the digestive tract, creating a gel-like substance, which helps to lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels.
The insoluble fibre meanwhile absorbs water, which adds bulk to the digestive tract and helps to move things through quickly, keeping the colon healthy and reducing the risk of conditions such as colon cancer.
Whole seed and nothing but the seed
If you’ve read this far, you’ll hopefully see that to reap the most benefits from flaxseed, you need to eat the whole seed and not just take flaxseed oil supplements (healthy as these are). Eating whole flaxseed is nothing new actually as small amounts of flaxseed are added to a number of foods (e.g. crackers, breads, cereals and so on) that can be purchased in the supermarket.
However, to consume useful amounts, it’s a much better idea to buy pure flaxseeds and use it in your own recipes. It’s also worth adding that to ensure you get the full benefits, you should ideally eat ground flaxseed because whole seeds can sometimes pass through the digestive tract undigested.
There are loads of ways to enjoy flaxseed. Eaten on its own, flaxseed has a light, nutty taste, which goes well with both sweet and savoury dishes. So for example, you can sprinkle flaxseeds on salads, add flaxseeds to fruit yoghurt, use them in a nuts and raisins mix – the list is endless.
Another great way to use flaxseed is to add ground seeds when baking for example, flapjacks. The flaxseed adds a nutty taste and will also boost the protein, fibre and omega-3 content of your flapjacks.
The recipe box for flaxseed muffins shows just how easy it is to make a tasty, healthy snack using flaxseed.
Recipe: Flaxseed Muffins
If you want a super-quick way to enjoy flaxseed, here’s a healthy, high-protein recipe that can be knocked up literally in a few minutes:
- 1 cup of ground flaxseed
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 2 teaspoons of cinnamon powder
- 4 eggs
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
Mix all ingredients into a bowl and then divide equally into four coffee mugs. Microwave at full power for three and a half minutes. Remove from mugs, allow to cool and spread with butter. Also works well as a savoury muffin – just omit the honey.