(POSTED: October 16, 2007)
What is Flax?
Flax comes from the blue-flowered plant crop grown mainly in the cool, northern climate of the western Canadian prairies. Canadian brown flax seed is the favourite choice of consumers. The omega-3 fatty acid and fibre in flax are nutrients that contribute to wellness.
An Ancient Crop
Flax has been grown since the beginnings of civilization, and people all over the world have celebrated its usefulness throughout the ages. Cultivated flax, L. usitatissimum, is of two types: one is grown for the seed and the other for fibre production. In North America, it is primarily the oilseed varieties which are produced commercially.
Historians weave the magic of flax into ancient history. Records show that the human race has eaten this seed since early times.
> About 3,000 B.C. Flax is cultivated in Babylon.
> Burial chambers depict flax cultivation and clothing from flax fibres.
> About 650 B.C. Hippocrates writes about using flax for the relief of abdominal pains.
> In the same era, Theophrastus recommends the use of flax mucilage as a cough remedy.
> About 1st Century A.D. Tacitus praises the virtues of flax.
> About 8th Century A.D. Charlemagne considered flax so important for the health of his subjects that he passed laws and regulations requiring its consumption.
> About 15th Century A.D. Hildegard von Bingen used flax meal in hot compresses for the treatment of both external and internal ailments
Flax in a New Land
Flax on the North American continent dates back almost 400 years to 1617 when Louis Hébert, the first farmer in Canada, brought it to New France. With time, flax production expanded and moved westward across the continent. By 1875, European settlers were seeding the unbroken western prairie with flax brought from their homelands. Flax flourished in the clean environment, and production in the new land advanced.
The coming of two world wars increased demand for flax as a source of oil for many products in the home and factory. Following the Second World War, particularly, commercial production in North America expanded substantially.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, flax products were widely used throughout the world. Oil-based coatings beautified and protected wooden and concrete surfaces, and durable linoleum became a popular flooring material. During this time, and beyond, flax formed part of peoples' diets.
In parts of the world, flax breads and other baked goods are commonplace. Similarly, farmers and animal breeders feed flax to their livestock for maintenance of healthy coat and to improve animals' digestion.
Over the last decades, flax has stayed popular, and progressive Canadian flax producers have moved forward to meet customers' exacting standards for flax. Canada's share of flax production has increased steadily. In the 90s, Canada emerged as the major exporter of flax worldwide.
Naturally Nutritious Flax
Following the long-established eating patterns of other populations, North Americans are enjoying more flax breads and baked goods. The use of flax in breads, bagels and other baked goods has tripled demand for flax in the food industry in North America this decade.
Omega-3 enriched foods offer more food choices to consumers seeking to increase the omega-3 content of their diet. For example, omega-3 enriched eggs from laying hens fed a special flax diet are gaining in popularity amongst consumers on the North American continent and abroad. Other food products, such as omega-3 enriched pork, are produced by including flax in animal rations.
Still other animal producers add flax to feed rations for better animal health. In the pet food industry, flax is a common ingredient in premium brands.
Which is better for me, whole or ground flax seed?
Ground flax seed provides more nutritional benefits than does whole seed. That’s because flax seeds are very hard, making them difficult to crack, even with careful chewing. Grinding flax seeds breaks them up, making them easier to digest when eaten. Then the body can profit from all that flax goodness.
If whole flax seeds remain unbroken, they may pass undigested through the body, reducing the nutritional advantage of eating flax seed in the first place.
What is the difference between brown flax seed and golden or yellow flax seed? Is one better than the other?
No, one flax seed is not better for you than another. Brown flax seeds provide the same nutritional benefits as golden (or yellow) ones. Both brown and golden flax seeds have plenty of lignans and dietary fibre, and both contain more than 50 per cent alpha-linolenic acid. This is an omega-3 fat which offers you health and heart fitness.
While some people prefer yellow-coloured seed in their cooking, brown flax seeds add the same nutrition to your diet as do golden ones. This means you can choose your flax seed freely. Brown flax seed may be more commonly found than golden, as more brown than golden flax seed is grown commercially.
Note: There is another yellow seed that looks like flax, but is not flax. It is most likely solin seed, a crop developed from flax. Solin seeds do NOT provide the same nutritional benefit of flax seeds. Solin seeds contain less than one-tenth of the alpha-linolenic acid found in flax seeds. Thus, the important omega-3 advantage of flax is missing in solin.
How should I store flax seed and for how long will it keep?
Whole flax seed
Whole flax seed comes with Nature’s own finest packaging – its natural hard hull keeps it fresh. You can store clean, dry, good quality whole flax seed at room temperature for up to a year. Some people keep a jar of flax seed handy on their kitchen counter.
Ground flax seed
All vegetable oil products require some care in handling and storing. Once you grind flax seed, there is greater risk of it developing an off-flavour and taste. That’s why it’s best to grind whole flax seed as you need it. This ensures its freshness. After grinding, you should refrigerate it in an airtight, opaque container. Ground flax seed handled this way will keep for up to 90 days.
I’m currently taking a prescription medication. Can I still eat flax?
If you are taking any medications, the Flax Council does not suggest or recommend that you eat flax or flax products without the specific approval of your physician. This is in keeping with the advice of experts who advise patients to consult their physicians before making any changes to their diet.
Does flax contain gluten?
Flax contains no gluten.
How many calories are in flax seed?
100 grams of flax seed has approximately 450 calories
Canada - A Flax Leader
For centuries, flax has played an important role in Canadian agriculture. High quality flax as an ingredient in food and many other products has given Canada an edge in world sales and exports of the commodity.
Today, Canada is the world's leader in the production and export of flax — a position it has held since 1994. In the relatively poor crop year of 2004/05, Canada produced about 500,000 t, and exported about 90% of it, according to Statistics Canada . In 2005/06, Canadian flax production totalled 1.035 mt.
One of five major Canadian crops, flax travels today to ports alongside wheat, barley, oats and canola. Canadian flax is exported mainly to Europe, the U.S., Japan and South Korea . Canada currently ships 60% of its flax exports to the EU, 30% to the United States, and 4% to Japan.
Solin, a flax derivative, is a yellow-seeded crop which was introduced to Canadian producers in 1993. Solin has a very different fatty acid profile from flax. Solin varieties have less than 5 per cent alpha-linolenic acid compared to the more than 50 per cent in flax. In contrast, flax produces a brown seed with high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, an essential acid which nutritionists recognize as a contributor to good health.
Source: Flax Council of Canada