Why the fuss over Flaxseeds?

>> Monday, August 25, 2008

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.


Mark Salinas August 25, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

We put flaxseed oil into our smoothies...a good idea? Thanks as always for so much information!

cathy August 25, 2008 at 2:20 PM  

Probably fine, Mark. It shouldn't have the same cyanidic compounds that the raw, whole seed has. You won't be getting any of the fiber benefits, but you will be getting the good fats.

If you're going to supplement, though, I would stick with fish oil. A lot more omega-3 bang for your buck with fish oil!

fatfighter August 25, 2008 at 2:35 PM  

My doctor had me add flaxseeds to my diet to help with some problems I have with my digestive system... but I over did it and the results were not pretty. ;) In my case, I just need to add a little bit at a time.

Rachel August 25, 2008 at 4:50 PM  

I have found my boys won't do the fish oils due to their strong tastes and my boys very...erm, discerning palattes?

So, we do use a lot of flaxseed. The raw is generally on their cereal and in sandwiches and in smoothies. I'll have to keep an eye on the amounts, just to be careful. Thanks for that tip.

I always learn something new on this blog!

James Hubbard August 25, 2008 at 5:32 PM  

Very informative. It is a reminder for me to eat more.

Rachel August 26, 2008 at 8:10 AM  

Oh, and a quick ? Is ALA the precursor of DHA? Or is that different? How much DHA could on expect from 2 tablespoons of flax seed (ground)?

cathy August 26, 2008 at 8:20 AM  

Rachel - ALA is converted to EPA and then EPA is subsequently converted to DHA. ALA to DHA conversion (through EPA) is very limited and slow at that.

I've read that studies have shown basically no DHA from flaxseed consumption (but haven't actually seen the studies). Wikipedia offers this: "15 grams of flaxseed oil provides ca. 8 grams of ALA, which is converted in the body to EPA and then DHA at an efficiency of 2–15% and 2–5%, respectively."

How much EPA you get from ALA really depends on your own body chemistry. Bottomline, though, is that you really shouldn't count on flax for DHA in your diet.

Thanks for the question!

cathy August 26, 2008 at 8:21 AM  

One more thing, Rachel - have you tried the fish oil supplements for kids on the Dr. Sears website? I haven't, but it seems like they advertise them to not have a fishy taste. Just throwing that out there...

Rachel August 26, 2008 at 10:49 AM  

I'll have to check those out.

We tried some gummy bears from the health food store and the kids loved them, but they needed about 4 bears to even get about 80 mg of DHA. And they were quite expensive. So those were kinda iffy on their effectiveness.

Then we got the Costco ones and they were well-priced and the DHA content was impressive. (Somewhere around 200 mg per gummy, I believe?) But the texture was somewhat off. Slightly grainy? Plus they added a "sugar" coating like a gumdrop, and the kids would not go for it. And they tasted slightly fishy and even smelled a little fishy.

We tried just chewing a Nordic Natural tablet, since they are so nicely flavored, but the oily texture was not to be borne by the boys. The same went for just swallowing the flavored oils in juice.

So there is the not-so-brief history of our family's dabbling with supplements. McKay does eat Omega-3-enhanced eggs and he likes mayonaise, so he gets more DHA. Michael...not so much. His sensory issues are very strong.

So, off to check out the Dr. Sears supplements! Thanks for the info!

autismfamily August 26, 2008 at 12:53 PM  

I use a supplement that has borage oil, fish oil and flax seed oil all in one very large gelcap. It is from Walgreens and costs about $8.

Whole Foods sells Flaxseed bread.

cathy August 26, 2008 at 1:17 PM  

Autismfamily - I don't really know much about borage oil. It's good oil is apparently GLA, which is an omega-6 fatty acid (but considered a good omega-6 fatty acid). You've peaked my interest - I'll have to find out more about it now!

Jim Purdy September 7, 2008 at 1:28 AM  

You said:
"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."

I have some ground flaxseed in a sealed bag in my refrigerator, I think from Bob's Red Mill. Anyway, thanks for the reminder. I need to start putting the flaxseed in more of my foods, especially since I'm trying to get my fiber in my diet.

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