The flax plant is one of the oldest crops in existence and has been cultivated for use as both food and fiber—what most of us know as linen—since at least 8,000 BCE. And, believe it or not, dyed wild flax fibers dating to 34,000 BCE were even recently found in a cave in Georgia. With such a long history of use, is it any wonder that the Latin name for flaxseed, Linum usitatissimum, translates to “very useful”? But what about the health benefits of flaxseed? Historical records show that flaxseed was recommended by Hippocrates for abdominal pain, and Charlemagne was so impressed he actually passed laws requiring its consumption. And flaxseed is no less respected today. So come with us as we explore the many flaxseed benefits and why you should add more of this ancient plant food to your diet.
Flaxseed Benefits and Nutrition
One of the qualities that makes flaxseeds so healthy is their high fiber content. In fact, just a tablespoon of whole flaxseeds contains almost 3 grams of dietary fiber, in the form of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
What’s the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber?
Soluble fiber mixes with water to form a gel-like substance that helps you feel fuller longer, which can aid in weight loss. Soluble fiber is also the type of fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar levels, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
By contrast, insoluble fiber aids digestive health by helping to prevent constipation. Insoluble fiber also adds bulk to stool and moves material through the digestive tract more quickly—which is why it’s associated with decreased colon cancer risk.
Flaxseeds are perhaps best known for their high levels of essential fatty acids, in particular their high ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. Unlike the biologically active eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fatty fish, the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the form found in flaxseeds.
ALA is converted in the body into both EPA and DHA, but the amount that’s transformed varies based on the individual. However, the consumption of ALA is associated with the same health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. For example, the polyunsaturated fatty acids—the omega-3s—in flaxseeds have been shown to improve mood as well as heart, eye, and brain health. And they’ve also been found to help lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds also add strength and shine to hair and improve skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. Moreover, they reduce dryness and protect against skin cancer—all without you having to put anything on your face!
What’s more, their anti-inflammatory properties mean that the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds may help prevent the chronic inflammation that can lead to arthritis, heart disease, and even cancer.
And if this healthy dose of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids isn’t enough to tempt you, the tiny flaxseed is also nature’s richest source of lignans. These polyphenols act as both antioxidants and phytoestrogens and may help reduce the risk of several types of cancer linked to hormonal imbalances, including breast and prostate cancers.
Both omega-3 fatty acids and phytoestrogens are also linked to improvements in menopausal symptoms, including a lessening of hot flashes and night sweats, and a reduction in health problems that are more likely to appear after menopause, such as bone loss and cognitive decline.
Which Type of Flaxseed Is Best?
The large amounts of fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and lignans in flaxseeds mean that adding these seeds to your diet is a great way to improve your health and well-being. But, from whole seeds to flaxseed meal to flaxseed oil, there’s more than one way to get your flaxseeds.
So which is best?
Since whole flaxseeds are hard to digest—you’d probably wear your chewing muscles out before you managed to chew up each and every seed in a single mouthful—and can pass straight through the digestive tract intact, the best type of flaxseed to include in the diet is either ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil.
Ground flaxseeds, or flaxseed meal, can be purchased from most grocery stores, health food stores, and online marketplaces. Whole flaxseeds can also be purchased and ground fresh into flaxseed meal using a food processor or coffee grinder.
A tablespoon of ground flaxseeds makes a great addition to salads, yogurt, cereal, smoothies, smoothie bowls, cakes, cookies, muffins, and pretty much all your favorite baked goods. Just replace 1/4 cup of flour with flaxseed meal, which you may also find sold as flaxseed powder.
Studies have also found that the ALA and lignans in flaxseeds are actually quite tolerant of baking temperatures and remain largely intact, so you don’t have to worry about sacrificing nutritional content for versatility.
Flaxseed oil is made by crushing the whole seeds and extracting the oil. While some processes use heat, which can degrade both the flavor and nutritional value, and chemical solvents, which can leave behind toxic residues, the safest and highest quality oils are produced using cold pressing.
This technique involves mechanically crushing the seeds to extract the oil. And because no heat or solvents are used, the final product retains not only the natural flavor of the oil but also all the important nutrients, including the free radical-scavenging antioxidants.
Cold pressed flaxseed oil is sold as a dietary supplement through both health food stores and online marketplaces. But the truly dedicated can also purchase stainless steel presses for cold pressing their own oil at home—you can’t get much fresher than that!
Though flaxseed oil’s low smoke point means it isn’t suitable as a cooking oil, it’s great added to salad dressings or drizzled on roasted vegetables. You can even add a tablespoon to your daily green drink for extra health benefits.
However, cold pressing does result in the removal of all the beneficial lignans, so if you’re interested in retaining the phytoestrogen power of these antioxidants, be sure to look for flaxseed oil that’s had its lignans added back in.
It’s also a good idea to remember that whole flaxseeds have a much longer shelf life than either ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil. The whole seeds can also stay fresh for up to a year when stored in a dark, airtight container. However, flaxseed powder and oil should be kept either refrigerated or frozen. If refrigerated, both the powder and oil will remain fresh for a few months, but freezing will extend shelf life to a year.
Flaxseed vs. Linseed
Although flaxseed and linseed are two names for the same plant, the part of the world you’re in will determine which is fit for human consumption. While many parts of the world, including Europe, sell linseed as a dietary supplement, in North America, the word linseed is used to describe flaxseed oil that’s been processed for industrial purposes. For example, many of us in North America are probably familiar with linseed oil’s use as a wood preservative, medium for oil paints, and component of linoleum flooring.
So if you’re in Canada or the United States, don’t get your dietary supplement at your local hardware or craft store, because linseed oil is processed using chemical solvents like petroleum or heavy metals like cobalt and can be fatal if ingested. However, some companies are now processing linseed oil using a polymerization method that involves no toxic additives—though we still wouldn’t recommend it as a healthy addition to your next batch of muffins or fruit smoothies.
But for anyone new to the many benefits of flaxseeds, we hope we’ve piqued your interest and encouraged you to add a little of this ancient superfood to your diet. With their generous amount of protein, healthy fats, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant-rich phytochemicals, you can’t go wrong with flaxseeds!