What is Flax?

Flax is a blue flowering crop grown on the Prairies of Canada for its oil-rich seeds. The seeds of flax are tiny, smooth and flat, and range in colour from light to reddish brown. They serve a variety of purposes, including baking and other food uses.

People have eaten flaxseed since ancient times. Taste - a pleasant, nutty flavour - is one reason. Good nutrition is another.

Flax Is an Ancient Crop Flax has been grown since the beginnings of civilization, and people all over the world have celebrated its usefulness throughout the ages. Cultivated flax, L. usitatissimum, is of two types: one is grown for the seed and the other for fibre production. In North America, it is primarily the oilseed varieties which are produced commercially.

Historians weave the magic of flax into ancient history. Records show that the human race has eaten this seed since early times. About 3,000 B.C.Flax is cultivated in Babylon.

Burial chambers depict flax cultivation and clothing from flax fibres.

About 650 B.C.Hippocrates writes about using flax for the relief of abdominal pains.

In the same era, Theophrastus recommends the use of flax mucilage as a cough remedy.

About 1st Century A.D.Tacitus praises the virtues of flax.About 8th Century A.D.Charlemagne considered flax so important for the health of his subjects that he passed laws and regulations requiring its consumption. About 15th Century A.D.Hildegard von Bigen used flax meal in hot compresses for the treatment of both external and internal ailments.

Flax for a New Century As we head into the 21st century, new markets for flax worldwide are soaring. These are partly fuelled by a movement which distinguishes flaxseed as a nutritious food.

Naturally nutritious flax Following the long-established eating patterns of others, North Americans are enjoying more flaxseed breads and baked goods. The use of flaxseed in breads, bagels and other baked goods has tripled demand for flax in the food industry in North America this decade. Omega-3 enriched eggs from laying hens fed a special flaxseed diet are also gaining in popularity amongst consumers on the North American continent and abroad.

Canada Is a Flax Leader Today, Canada is the world's leader in the production and export of flax - a position it has held since 1994. Statistics Canada's ten- year average (1986-1995) for Canadian production is about 710,000 t flaxseed produced on about 1.5 million acres (590,000 ha). In 1996/97, Canada produced about 40 per cent (860,000 t) of the world's total flax production, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

One of five major Canadian crops, today flax travels to ports alongside wheat, barley, oats and canola. It is exported mainly to Europe, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Canada currently supplies nearly 60 per cent of the flaxseed utilized in the United States.

Solin Solin, a flax derivative, is a yellow-seeded crop which was introduced to Canadian producers in 1993. Solin has a very different fatty acid profile from flax. Solin varieties have less than 5 per cent alpha-linolenic acid compared to the more than 50 per cent in flax.

In contrast, flax produces a brown seed with high amounts of alpha- linolenic acid, an essential acid which nutritionists recognize as a contributor to good health.

Flaxseed As a Food Because of its link to good health, flaxseed is fast becoming a new food in many diets. Bakers and commercial food companies use flaxseed as a unique ingredient in everything from yeast breads, to bagels and cookie mixes. Not only do muffins and breads baked with flax taste great, but studies also find that these foods provide health benefits.

Omega-3 enriched eggs from hens fed rations containing flaxseed are also very popular. These eggs contain eight to 10 times more omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs. Two of the enriched eggs supply more than half Health Canada's recommended daily intake of omega- 3s for adult men and women.

The small whole seeds of flax add flavour, appearance and food value to breads, muffins and cookies.

A Focus on Fatty Acids Part of the reason fats and oils have earned such a bad reputation in recent years is because people eat too much fat, particularly too much saturated fat. (Saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease.)

Although about 41 per cent of flaxseed is oil, very little of that is saturated. More than 70 per cent of fat in flaxseed is of the healthful polyunsaturated type. In fact, a unique feature of flaxseed is the high ratio of alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) to linoleic (omega-6 fatty acids).

Nutritionists consider these two polyunsaturated fatty acids as essential because the body cannot manufacture them from any other substances. (Normally, the body converts carbohydrates, proteins and fats into fatty acids as needed.) That means they must be eaten as part of the diet.

While other plant seeds - corn, sunflower, peanuts - contain omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, flaxseed is the only one that contains so much of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Understanding how these two types of polyunsaturated fat differ, can help underscore why flaxseed has so many unique health benefits.

Fatty Acid Composition of Flaxseed Oil % of total fatty acids Saturated fatty acids9Monounsaturated 18Polyunsaturated fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids57Omega-6 fatty acids16

Omega-3 fatty acids - More than half the fat in flaxseed is of the essential omega-3 fatty acid type. Scientific studies reporting health benefits for omega-3 fatty acids show that these fatty acids are required for proper infant growth and development. Cholesterol can be reduced by adding flaxseed to the diet. New research also suggests that alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid which is abundant in flaxseed, offers protective effects against both coronary heart disease and stroke. Omega-3s have been shown to also protect against hypertension, and inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Long- term studies of flaxseed effects on breast cancer are now underway.

Omega-6 fatty acids - An essential fatty acid, linoleic is the chief polyunsaturated fat in the North American diet. Most omega-6 fatty acids in the diet come from vegetable oils.

Ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s - Studies of hunter-gatherer populations show their diets contained roughly equal amounts of omega- 6 and omega -3 fatty acids. Currently, researchers and nutrition experts recommend people replace some omega-6 fatty acids in their diet with omega-3 fatty acids like those found in flaxseed.

Focus on Fibre What makes flaxseed stand out above other whole grains is also its mix of fibre. Rather than containing large amounts of one type of fibre, flaxseed contains generous quantities of both soluble and insoluble fibre. Researchers are particularly interested in the cancer-fighting ability of lignans. Flaxseed is one of the richest sources of lignans in the plant kingdom.

Soluble fibre - Most of the soluble fibre in flaxseed is mucilage, a thick, sticky substance. Few studies have looked at the direct effects of flaxseed mucilage on health. But studies show that eating flaxseed (baked into muffins and breads) can lower blood cholesterol levels.

Since it is well known that soluble fibres - fruit pectin, oat bran or mustard seed mucilage - are effective cholesterol-lowering agents, it's likely that the soluble fibre in flaxseed is no exception. Insoluble fibre - Not surprisingly, studies show that the insoluble fibre in flaxseed, like that in wheat bran, is helpful for regulating bowel movements and preventing constipation. Because flaxseed's insoluble fibre components have the capacity to hold water, they help soften the stool and allow it to move through the colon more quickly.

Lignans - When bacteria in the digestive tract act on plant lignans these compounds are converted into potent hormone-like substances. Research with animals suggests that the newly formed compounds may be capable of blocking the action of certain cancer-causing substances in the body, substances that can contribute to the formation of tumours.

Currently,scientists are trying to determine how effective lignans and other chemicals in foods (phytochemicals) are at preventing cancer. They are also looking over evidence that suggests the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed are potential anticarcinogens.

An Overview of Health Benefits Recent scientific reports point out that flaxseed can have a positive influence on everything from cholesterol levels to laxation to cancer and heart disease.

Here are some highlights:
Relief from constipation
Eating 50 grams of flaxseed per day (baked into muffins) helped increase the frequency of bowel movements and the number of consecutive days with bowel movements in a group of older Canadian adults.
A lower risk for heart disease
Total cholesterol levels dropped 9 per cent and LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) decreased 18 per cent when a group of nine healthy women ate 50 grams of milled flaxseed a day for four weeks (as flour or cooked into bread) along with their regular diets, according to a report from the University of Toronto.

In a similar study with men and women, 50 grams of flaxseed (eaten daily in muffins) lowered total cholesterol and showed a constant trend of about 11 to 16 per cent lower serum lipids (fat in the blood).

Cancer prevention Lignans and alpha-linolenic acid are found abundantly in flaxseed. Population studies of diet and disease risk suggest an anticancer role for flaxseed. Long-term studies of flaxseed effects in women with breast cancer are underway.

Why Flaxseed Is Good Medicine Current nutrition research continues to identify various substances in foods that appear to act as protectors against chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Flaxseed, a popular food ingredient in Europe and Canada, is no exception.

The reasons are many: Several studies confirm that flaxseed can be a cholesterol-lowering agent like oat bran, fruit pectin and other food ingredients that contain soluble fibre. By packaging both omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fibre together, flaxseed presents two ingredients that favour healthy blood lipid patterns.

Flaxseed contains healthy amounts of both soluble and insoluble fibre. Scientists at the American National Cancer Institute singled out flaxseed as one of six foods that deserved special study. The reason: flaxseed shows potential cancer-fighting ability. Flaxseed is one of the richest sources of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen which may protect against cancer, particularly hormone-sensitive cancers such as those of the breast and prostate.

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