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Flax Appeal: Ancient grain makes comeback on health food circuit

Thursday, May 16, 2002

By Kathryn Matthews

In the nutrition arena, the tiny flaxseed packs a healthful wallop, one that has the food industry and consumers taking notice.

Although not yet as mainstream as soy, flaxseed is becoming increasingly conspicuous in food products. Touted for its healthful, omega-3 attributes and potential cancer-fighting abilities, it is appearing in breakfast cereals and energy bars -- even chips and cookies in some markets.

Cultivated since 9000 B.C., flaxseed has long been valued for its healthful properties. Egyptian doctors carried it in their medical bags. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette, Symbols @ Mark Millmore 1997, http//www.discoveringegypt.com)

At the supermarket, high omega-3 eggs from flax-fed hens are already commonplace. Next, expect to see flax-fed meat, particularly poultry and beef, in the not-too-distant future.

"Interest in snack and specialty foods enriched with flax has risen considerably in the last year," said Jack Carter, president of the Flax Institute of the United States in Fargo, N.D. He has been involved in flax research for five decades, and the institute is a nonprofit self-supporting group of flax scientists.

Cultivated since around 9,000 B.C., this ancient whole grain has long been valued for its therapeutic and healthful properties. In 5,000 B.C., Egyptian doctors carried flaxseed in their medical bags. In 650 B.C., Hippocrates wrote about flax as a curative for intestinal discomfort. And in the eighth century, Charlemagne established medical laws governing flax cultivation, so convinced was he of its dietary significance.

Today, research indicates that Charlemagne was indeed on the flax track to good health.

A protein, vitamin and mineral powerhouse, "flaxseed is one of the richest plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid in the terrestrial omega-3 ["good fat"] family, which has positive effects on cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis," said Barbara Lohse Knous, a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University.

"Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in salmon, sardines, walnuts and leafy greens. They can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by decreasing blood clots, keeping arteries open and lowering 'bad' LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels."

Flaxseed also rates as a superior source of fiber, which is linked to reduced cancer risk. Two-thirds of the fiber in flax is insoluble ("roughage") that is rapidly expelled, eliminating harmful toxins from the bowels in the process. One-third of flax's fiber is water-soluble, which helps reduce cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar levels -- a plus for people with diabetes.

In addition to omega-3 and fiber, flaxseed is one of the best dietary sources of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen (natural plant estrogen), that may protect against cancers, such as breast, uterine and colon. "Studies suggest lignans decrease tumor production," said Lohse Knous.

Depending on the variety, flaxseed may contain 75 to 800 times the amount of lignans found in various tested plant foods, including wheat bran, oats, millet, rye, legumes and soybeans.

Most recently, results of a Duke University Medical Center pilot study, published in the July 2001 issue of Urology, suggest that flaxseed, coupled with a low-fat diet, may help men reduce their risk of prostate cancer.

You can easily incorporate the nutty-tasting flaxseed -- whole, ground or as an oil -- into your diet. Ground flaxseed, however, delivers maximum nutritional benefits, since whole seeds, along with its healthful compounds, can pass through the body entirely undigested.

It's best to buy whole flaxseed -- available at most health food stores -- and grind it in a coffee grinder, as needed, to ensure freshness. Large quantities of ground flaxseed should be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated; it will keep up to three months.

Sprinkle ground flaxseed on oatmeal, cold cereals, soups, salads and yogurt. Bake into meatloaf, casseroles and breads; stir into sauces, stews and pancake batter; add to burgers and smoothies.

Whole flaxseed -- golden or brown (both provide equal nutritional value) -- can be stored at room temperature for up to a year. The more expensive golden flaxseed is commonly used for baking only because the color better blends into baked goods than brown flaxseed.

Flax oil is an excellent source of omega-3, too, but you won't get the dietary lignans and fiber found in flaxseed. Flax oil must be refrigerated at all times: it spoils quickly when exposed to heat, oxygen or light. And unlike olive oil, experts recommend flax oil not be used for cooking, since heat destroys its healthful fatty acids; instead, incorporate it into salad dressings or other cold dishes.

In addition to omega-3 and fiber, flaxseed is one of the best dietary sources of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen (natural plant estrogen) that may protect against cancers, such as breast, uterine and colon. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Recommended daily levels vary from 10 to 30 grams, or 1 to 3 tablespoons of ground flax, depending on which expert you consult. Carter, for example, recommends gradually working up to 30 grams, which yields 1 tablespoon of oil, about 50 percent omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid:

"Start with one-third of that dose the first week, two-thirds the second week, and then, 30 grams the third week. The only symptom characterizing this transition might be excess flatulence."

If you don't feel like measuring and grinding flax first thing in the morning, a number of products do it for you. I tried both Zoe Foods Flax and Soy Granola and Zoe Flax and Soy Bars made by Zoe Foods, a Boston-based natural foods company. Each serving (a substantial 2/3 cup) of cereal and each flax-soy bar guarantee 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed.

The cereal proved a welcome change from traditional jaw-breakingly hard and overly sweetened granolas; the texture is pleasingly moist, chewy and subtly flavorful.

Founder and president Tori Stuart originally formulated Zoe's Flax and Soy Granola to help women alleviate menopausal hot flashes. But as new flax research findings surface and consumer enthusiasm for the product grows, Stuart has broadened her target market.

For example, there is more interest from athletes, particularly in light of research indicating that the omega-3 in flaxseed may play a role in reducing inflammation.

Not into cereal? In addition to its whole flaxseed, Arrowhead Mills, part of Hain Celestial Inc., a natural, specialty and snack food company based in Melville, N.Y., will soon introduce three flax-and-soy extensions of its Perfect Harvest (an organic flax-and-soy cereal) brand: a muffin mix, a flour and a pancake-and-waffle mix.

"We're convinced of the benefits you get from this combination," said Rich Rein, a senior brand manager.

But non-breakfast eaters take heart: Flax pasta may soon be an option.

"We are researching ways to deliver flaxseed to people who might not otherwise consume it; pasta made sense because many people include it in their diet," said Clifford Hall, a food scientist at North Dakota State University. He is also developing flax-fortified milk products and a frozen flax-based dessert.

There's no doubt that flax is here to stay -- right down to the last course.

Just remember, Lohse Knous cautions, "While you can increase the nutritional value of food by adding flax, you can't necessarily make foods like, say, a doughnut, 'nutritious' by adding flax."

Kathryn Matthews, who grew up in Ross, is a New York City free-lance food writer.

Related Recipes:

White Wine-Braised Red Cabbage and Bacon

Date-Nut Bran Muffins

Whole-Wheat Flax Pancakes

Spicy Split Pea Soup

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