Before açaí and goji berries became the “it” health foods, there was flax. The whole grain has been cultivated since 3000 B.C., when even the ancient Babylonians had an inkling that flax was nutritious, according to registered dietitian Samantha Heller.
Thanks to modern science, we now know that flax possesses healthy omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. In particular, Heller explains that flax has alpha-linolenic acid, “a kind of omega-3 fatty acid that’s really healthy.” She adds that research has show that “it reduces internal inflammation, and it may help lower cholesterol. It’s good for your body, it’s heart healthy.”
While all forms of flax — oil, seeds and ground flax meal — have the omega-3 fat, only the seeds have lignans, which are powerful antioxidents that researchers are finding may actually help reduce the risk of certain cancers. “[It’s] certainly good for digestive health, high in fiber, as well,” said Heller.
Not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal, though, and she said that the ones found in fish have gotten a bit more attention from researchers.
“It’s like you have motorcycles and there’s all different kinds of motorcycles—you’ve got Kawasakis, and you’ve got BMWs, and you have Harleys,” Heller said. “It’s the same thing with omega-3 fats, there’s many different kinds. And in fish, there’s two kinds, EPA and DHA, and these are the ones we really look at in terms of lowering triglycerides, and we’ve done a lot of research on those.”
The different forms of flax also vary slightly in digestibility. Heller, the clinical nutrition coordinator for the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, particularly recommends ground flax seeds, or flax meal, because it’s easier for the body to digest. “It [tastes] sort of wheat germ-like,” she said. “I put those in smoothies, in salads, in yogurt.”
Flax oil also boasts healthful properties, but can’t be substituted for cooking oil because its a highly unsaturated fat. That means, it can turn rancid and should be kept in the refrigerator. “You can drizzle it on salads, you can even drizzle it on foods that are already cooked, you just won’t cook it in the pan like you would olive oil,” Heller noted.
As for being on trend, flax does has the added benefit of being gluten-free. “Perhaps since people tend to be shying some of the wheat products, maybe that’s one of the reasons flax is becoming more popular,” she said.
Below, try a recipe Heller recommends for muffins with flaxseed.
Zucchini, Banana, and Flaxseed Muffins
Adapted from Martha Stewart, Everyday Food, September 2011
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
- 1/2 cup ground flaxseed
- 1/2 cup lightly packed light-brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely grated zucchini (from 1 large zucchini)
- 1/3 cup mashed ripe banana (from 1 large banana)
- 3/4 cup 1% milk or unsweetened soy milk
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten or flax*
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract