Get the Facts on Flax: The Little Seed With Big Nutrition

Flaxseed has been a part of human and animal diets for thousands of years. Even in the days of Hippocrates, flaxseed was eaten for its health benefits. Recently, however, flaxseed has gained popularity among health-conscious Americans. Despite the hype surrounding this little seed, a lot of people have never heard of it. It may not exactly be a wonder food, but flaxseed certainly has nutritional benefits.
 

Nutritional Benefits


Flaxseed contains the following nutrients:
  • Lignans. Flaxseeds are one of the best plant sources for lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that may protect against certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and prostate cancer. Even the National Cancer Institute has identified its cancer-fighting potential.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds are the best plant source of healthy omega-3s, which are also found in fish. Fifty grams of flaxseed has about the same amount of omega-3s as three pounds of salmon!
  • Fiber. Flaxseeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which keep the digestive system in tip-top shape.
  • Protein. Flaxseed is a complete protein source, meaning that it contains every amino acid that your body can't make on its own. It’s uncommon to find plant-based foods that are complete proteins, so flaxseed makes a great addition to vegetarian diets.
One tablespoon of flaxseed contains:
  • 35 to 40 calories
  • 1.6 grams of protein
  • 2.8 grams of carbohydrate
  • 2.8 grams of fat (0.3 grams saturated, 0.6 grams monounsaturated, and 1.8 grams polyunsaturated)
  • 2.5 to 8 grams of fiber
  • 3 milligrams of sodium

Health Benefits


Research shows that flaxseed may have the ability to:
  • Prevent cancer and reduce tumor growth in the breasts, prostate and colon.
  • Decrease the risks of developing heart disease, blood clots, strokes and cardiac arrhythmia by lowering total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure.
  • Regulate bowel functions and prevent constipation.
  • Relieve breast pain related to a woman’s hormonal cycle.
  • Help improve blood glucose control in diabetics.
  • Help reduce inflammation associated with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and asthma.

Flaxseed Types


Most grocery stores do sell packaged flaxseed on their shelves, but natural foods stores tend to also offer flaxseeds in bulk form. There are two "types" of flaxseed: brown and golden. Although the color and price differ, the nutritional benefits are the same. The brown flaxseed is less expensive than the golden, but because golden flaxseed is lighter in color, it’s easier to hide in a variety of foods.

Most stores sell flaxseed in three different forms:
  1. Whole flaxseeds. You'll find golden or brown flaxseeds in bulk bins or pre-packaged. This is the most economical way to purchase flaxseeds. These will store well for a long time because the seed is intact. But to get the benefits of flaxseed, it must be ground before use (or chewed thoroughly). You can grind flaxseeds in a specialty flaxseed grinder (found at specialty kitchen stores or online), food processor, coffee grinder or blender. Once ground, it must be stored in an airtight, opaque container in the refrigerator or freezer. You can add whole flaxseeds to almost any food, even when baking.
     
  2. Ground flaxseed. Also called "flaxseed meal," you'll find pre-packaged golden and brown varieties on the grocery shelf or refrigerated section—but not in bulk form. Ground flaxseed is slightly more expensive than whole flaxseed. Ground flaxseed is highly perishable when exposed to air and light, and it goes bad quickly. Buying ground flaxseed saves you the step of grinding the seeds yourself, but it must be stored in an airtight and opaque container in the refrigerator or freezer after opening. You can add ground flaxseed to almost any food, even when cooking and baking.
     
  3. Flaxseed oil. You'll find flax oil in opaque bottles in the refrigerated section or sometimes in capsules. Both flaxseed oil in a bottle and flaxseed oil capsules are considered to be "supplements," not "foods." Flaxseed oil and capsules are the most expensive ways to purchase flaxseed. The oil is even more perishable than ground flaxseed and goes back quickly when exposed to air, light and heat. You can add flaxseed oil to many foods, but do NOT heat it or cook with it. Heat will cause flaxseed oil to go rancid and destroy its healthy properties. Only add flaxseed oil to chilled foods (like smoothies, salad dressings, yogurt, etc.) or to foods after cooking.

Serving Suggestions


Smooth and flat, the little seeds have a nutty taste. Keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way. In general, consuming 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed each day is considered safe for most adults. But it is possible to eat too much flaxseed. Some studies have shown nutrient and drug interactions when consumption reaches or exceeds 1/4 cup daily, so discuss this with your doctor and pharmacist. A small number of people may have an allergic reaction to flaxseed, so start with 1/2 teaspoon to see if an allergic reaction occurs.

More studies are needed to determine flaxseed’s effects in pregnant and breastfeeding women, but most researchers feel that one tablespoon daily is probably safe for this population. Check with your physician first. Studies have shown that lignans in flaxseed antagonize the action of some drugs (including tamoxifen) used by breast cancer patients. In addition, the NIH states that flaxseed may interfere with blood thinners, muscle relaxers, and medications for acid reflux. Flaxseed can also be troublesome for people with diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Flaxseed can add flavor, texture and nutrients to almost any food:
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseed on cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, salads and coleslaw
  • Enhance cold dressings, yogurts, sauces and smoothies with flaxseed oil
  • Mix ground flaxseed into meatloaf and meatballs
  • Add whole flaxseeds to granola bars, muffins and other baked goods
  • Add ground flaxseeds to pancake, muffin and cookie batter and other baked goods
  • Add ground flaxseeds to fish or chicken coating and oven-fry
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseed on casseroles, sauces, soups and stews
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Member Comments

I have eaten some foods containing flax seed but after reading this will make a point of buying some at the store. Not sure where, is it w/ cereals, baking items, or health section? Depending on price, I likely will get it whole & use a coffee grinder altho I tried that before & some seeds do work better than others. Keeping ground seeds in freezer is what I used to do w/ coffee. I think it's fine for a few days but oils do get rancid & can cause problems even before that nasty odor develops. Might as well get some chia again too & try the chia pudding Sparkers discuss in CF. Report
I love adding ground flax to yogurt and salads for extra flavor. Report
Great article! Report
I grind 1/4 cup and add it to our home baked bread. Report
Good need-to-know information! Report
Thank you for the article Report
Hahahaha! I like the comments as much as, or more than the article! Especially @prussianette who points out the necessity of grinding the little cancer fighting seeds!! Report
Awesome thanks Report
I like the bread that contains flax and eat it often. Report
I use flax and chia seed on a daily basis. Report
Just bought some on my last grocery trip. I was not aware that they needed to be ground first. This article was just in time for me. Report
Good info. Report
thanks Report
EVIE4NOW
Thank you. Report
Thanks Report


 

About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.