The Facts on Flax

posted by Anne Marie O’Connor
filed under diet postings
Flaxseed—a tiny, shiny seed with a pleasant, nutty flavor—is the newest star on the nutritional stage. But will it prove to be a flash in the pan like former miracle foods oat bran and wheat germ? Or does it have what it takes to be a nutritional superstar?

The preliminary evidence suggests that flaxseed will definitely be more Madonna than Cyndi Lauper in terms of staying power. First of all, says Sheah Rarback, R.D., a Miami-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, ounce for ounce, flaxseed oil contains 50 percent more Omega-3 fatty acids than fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are famed for their ability to reduce the risk of blood clotting, which in turn decreases your risk of heart disease and stroke. In addition, "some research has been done [that says] Omega-3s can reduce inflammatory conditions like arthritis and lupus," Rarback points out. Flaxseed also contains lots of cholesterol-lowering fiber, as well as lignans—substances that may play a role in preventing hormone-related cancers such as breast, uterine, and prostate.

To confer all these benefits, the seeds should not be served up whole, cautions Rarback, because the body can't digest them that way. "You need to crunch them up and release the oil." Purchase whole flaxseed at the health food store and grind it up using a mortar and pestle (or in a clean coffee grinder) and store it in the refrigerator (it'll keep for about three months). You can also buy the pre-ground seeds, which can also be refrigerated for up to three months. Flaxseed is also available as an oil, but don't toss your extra virgin olive just yet: Flaxseed oil has a strong taste that isn't particularly pleasant sprinkled on fresh summer tomatoes or a green salad.

How much flaxseed do you need on a daily basis? "Since there's no RDA for it, it's hard to say an amount," Rarback says. "People who would give you a dosage are people who are selling a product." (Although there is no U.S. RDA for flaxseed or Omega-3 fatty acids, the Canadian dietary guidelines suggest a daily intake of 1.0 to 1.5 grams of Omega-3 fat, which is found in one teaspoon of flaxseed oil.) Do keep in mind that flaxseed is not calorie-free: One tablespoon of the ground seeds has 36 calories.

As the public's interest in flaxseed grows, "what you're going to see are prepared foods and cereals that already have some flaxseed oil added to them," predicts Rarback. For many people, these foods may be the easiest way to increase their consumption of flaxseed. Until then, Rarback advises sprinkling a couple of tablespoons of flaxseed on cereal, or adding it to mixed foods, such as casseroles, stews, or meat loafs. It's also great added into a fruit smoothie or sprinkled over soups, salads, or yogurt. 

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