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The Facts on Flaxseed

Should you eat flaxseed? Use flaxseed oil for cooking and salads? Take flaxseed supplements? Will flaxseed in any form lower blood cholesterol and prevent heart attacks? Is flax more powerful than other seeds and oils? Flax is a particularly interesting plant that is under study at the National Cancer Institute and other research centers.

The flax plant, an old friend of humanity, yields the fiber from which linen is woven, as well as seeds and oil. The oil, also called linseed oil, has many industrial uses-as an ingredient in paints, varnishes, and linoleum, and as a finishing oil for wood furniture. It also comes in an edible form, sold mostly at health-food stores. Like olive, canola, and most other plant-derived oils, it is highly unsaturated and is thus a healthful choice to replace saturated fats from animal products. Flaxseed, from which the oil is extracted, can be eaten whole or ground into flour.

Some people now believe that flaxseed and its oil are special-that their health effects are greater than those of other seeds and oils. The background is complex.

Adding flaxseed to your diet

It certainly can't hurt to add flaxseed and its oil to a healthy diet-one based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat dairy products, and small amounts of fish and meat, and thus low in saturated fat and cholesterol. But adding flaxseed to a poor diet is not likely to help much.

Flaxseed flour or ground or whole flaxseeds can be found in some breads, muffins, cereals, and breakfast bars, particularly in health-food stores. Flaxseeds have a pleasant, nutty flavor and are tasty sprinkled on salads, cooked vegetables, or cereals. (However, unless the seeds are well chewed or ground, they simply pass through the body.) You may want to combine flaxseed flour with wheat flour for baking. The seeds and the oil spoil quickly: the oil comes in dark bottles to extend its shelf life; the oil, once opened, as well as ground flaxseed and flour, should be refrigerated. And the oil is expensive.

Two cautions: in rare instances people may have allergic reactions to flaxseed (anaphylactic shock, as from bee stings or nuts). Flaxseed is high in fiber, so increase water intake along with it.

And supplements too? Flaxseed supplements, which usually contain ground seeds plus vitamin E, are gaining popularity. Vitamin E supplementation is recommended (taking 200 to 800 IU daily), but skip the flaxseed capsules. If you want to make flaxseed part of your diet, consume the oil or the flour, not the supplements.

Overview

Claims, Benefits:
Prevents heart disease and cancer.

Bottom Line: Flaxseed oil is heart-healthy because it contains alpha-linolenic acid. Flaxseed itself (ground or whole) also contains lignans, which may have antioxidant actions and may help protect against certain cancers, though this is far from certain.

 

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