Flaxseeds have been around since civilization started. It's health benefits were recognized as far back as Hippocrates' (ca. 460 BC–ca. 370 BC) time when he wrote that it was a remedy for abdominal pains. During that same time, Theophrastus — a Greek philosopher and scientist — recommended it for coughs, and the emperor Charlemagne (ca. 724–814) thought it was so important for health that he passed laws that required his subjects consume it.1
Today, both vegetarians and non vegetarians know about flaxseeds because of their health benefits, or because they've been added to so many foods, like breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, omega–3 eggs, and salad dressing.
Flaxseeds are the seeds from the Linum usitatissimum plant. They're slightly larger than sesame seeds, have a hard outer shell, and a nutty flavor.
Flax is another great source of Omega–3 ALA fatty acids. In fact, it has almost twice as much ALA as fish oil.
This is great news for vegetarians because your body can convert ALA to Omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). Omega-3 DHA and EPA fatty acids are important for cardiovascular health, brain health and development, and good eyes and eyesight, but there are no plant sources.
ALA has other great benefits of its own, too. .
What' 's more, these super healthy seeds are a great source of fiber and lignans, and a good source of manganese, folate, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper.6
Flaxseeds have 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.7 This phytochemical helps lower LDL cholesterol, and helps provide protection against some cancers.
In fact, a recent study suggests that eating flaxseeds could reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer by 40 percent.8 It found that the lignans kill off cancer cells, and prevent secondary tumors by stopping the growth of new blood vessels.
This is encouraging news, but more studies confirming the same results are needed.
You can purchase whole seeds, ground seeds, or flax oil. Whole seeds always have to be ground before you eat them because the seed has a hard shell that your body can't break down, even if you chew them well. If the seeds are not ground, they simply pass through your system undigested, and you miss out on all the great health benefits.
On the other hand, it's this hard shell that keeps the flax fresh for up to a year at room temperature.
The ground seeds oxidize and lose their nutrients fast,9 so store what's left in an airtight container in the refrigerator. According to the Flax Council of Canada, the ground flax will keep for up to 90 days refrigerated. Freezing it will keep it even longer.
A disadvantage of flax oil is it oxidizes and turns rancid easily. So buy only the freshest flax oil and store it in a cool, dark place, preferably the refrigerator. When it starts to smell and taste different, throw it out; it's a sign that it's rancid.
With flax oil you also miss out on the fiber, and, because not all of the seed is used, some of the nutritional value is lost, including the lignans.
Flax is easy to add to foods and beverages. For example, ground seeds can be sprinkled on cereals or salads, and added to baked goods.
1 Michael T. Murray, Joseph Pizzorno, Lara Pizzorno, The Condensed Encyclopedia of Healing Foods
2 Make room for flax http://www.functionalingredientsmag.com/content/print.aspx?topic=make-room-for-flax By Kelley Fitzpatrick February 01, 2008
3 Licastro F, Candore G, Lio D, et al. 2005. Innate immunity and inflammation in aging: a key for understanding age-related diseases. Immunity Aging 2: 8. doi:
4 Griffin WST. 2006. Inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 83(suppl): 470S-474S.
5 Wellness Market Opportunities in the Aging American Population, Kalorama Information (a division of MarketResearch.com)
6 Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, The Benefits of Flaxseed, WebMD
8 Claire Bates, Mailonline, Eating seeds could 'reduce risk of dying from breast cancer by 40 per cent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology
9 University of Maryland Medical Center, Omega=3 fatty acids