Did you hear about the gal who made a flax-only smoothie? It was a fruitless endeavor…
Once you address your cramps from being bent over laughing so hard, it’s time to get serious about one of the most important things you’ll ever know: flax.
See what I did there? I exaggerated the importance of flax. It was a little in-your-face, yes, but I did it. To cut to the chase of this article, that’s what I feel is going on in the nutrition and natural products world with flax. Lots of hype. Oversold importance.
Don’t get me wrong – flax is a healthy seed. It’s a great addition to your diet. But flax is not the cornerstone of good health that many make it out to be.
What is a flax?
Has anyone ever seen what a sesame seed grows into? As comedian Mitch Hedberg brilliantly said, “What is a sesame?”
The same goes for flax. We are so preoccupied with the seeds, we probably couldn’t pick a flax out of a lineup.
We’re here to help. A flax is a long-stalked plant that has very pretty blue flowers and fruits which contain magical seeds.
Flax is a member of the genus Linum and is often referred to as linseed. The seeds in the flax plant are referred to as flaxseed or linseed. If you squeeze the seeds, you’ll find an oil, which is called flaxseed oil or linseed oil. Linseed/flaxseed oil is used as a furniture polish. Yummy!
Oh, you want to make cloth? I’ve got just the thing – a flax plant! The stalks are thin and fibrous and are excellent for making clothes. Let’s call the cloth linen. See how it all comes together?
All of the use of flax in diet and supplements comes from the seed. The fibers are left for making clothes, banknotes, tea bags, rope, and more.
Nutritional Components of Flaxseed (aka “Why the big deal?”)
When we talk about Flax from here on out, know that we mean flaxseed. The seeds offer the health benefits that we are talking about and we really don’t eat the rest of the plant.
Since it is a plant, we can make certain assumptions about the health benefits it contains. Firstly, plants are rich in fiber. Flax as a fiber product does come up with some regularity. Re-read that line, then know I typed it with a devilish smile…
Flax contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, which are good for keeping cholesterol in check and your GI tract healthy, respectively. Two tablespoons of flaxseed can contain 6 grams of fiber.
Flax is also a protein source. Unfortunately, and similarly to many plant protein sources, it is incomplete. It lacks lysine, so pair it with other protein sources rich in lysine like beans and pumpkin seeds. Two tablespoons of flaxseed can contain about 4 grams of protein.
Flaxseed is also rich in some vitamins and minerals. Specifically, flax is rich in thiamine, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Essential Fatty Acids
Flaxseed contains essential fatty acids, both Omega-6 and Omega-3. When people describe it, they say flaxseed is “low in omega-6” and “rich in omega-3.”
Here’s the catch. The part that often isn’t discussed when talking about flaxseed’s “omega-rich” nature. The Omega-3 fats found in flaxseed aren’t very usable by the body. Therefore, we are getting a pretty solid dose of Omega-6 without much of an Omega-3 benefit. Boom.
Let’s extrapolate, because it is important to the discussion on fats and specifically why we here get hung up on high doses of EPA and DHA.
Omega 3 and 6 are essential fatty acids, meaning our bodies don’t make them and we have to get them from outside sources. The active forms of Omega-3 are EPA and DHA. They are absorbed easily from the diet – mostly fatty fish. Our bodies can construct EPA and DHA, which are much longer chain fats, using dietary intake of ALA, a short precursor Omega-3 that comes from things like nuts, and you guessed it, seeds.
Here’s the problem though. Our dietary intake of ALA is poorly converted to the active, needed forms of EPA and DHA. It’s something small, like 10-20% (it’s higher in women because they are superior to men).
So while ALA is a good Omega-3, we aren’t really getting the direct benefits of Omega-3 from ALA. We’d have to have a LOT of flax to have it positively impact the Omega-3. Another issue: Omega-6 competes with ALA conversion sites. So taking high doses of flaxseed may convert to small amounts of EPA and DHA, sure, but Omega-6 doses end up being way more than we should be getting, further decreasing the utilization of ALA.
I may be taking a cynical look at it, but I consider the ALA found in flax to be worthless as it pertains to daily Omega-3 goals.
Sometimes it’s good to get visual, so here’s how the Omegas link to each other:
The Special Ingredient
Flaxseed is rich in a compound called lignans. And when I say rich, I mean like 800x more than other foods.
Lignans have weak estrogen activity. So flax can have an impact on the body in the same way soy does. This is a good and bad thing, of course. Modifying sex hormones in anyone should be done in a more controlled way, typically with consistent dosed using bio-identical forms (aka the stuff our bodies make), not a precursor or intermediate products like phytoestrogens.
We generally tell people to avoid large amounts of soy because of the estrogen activity, so we’d do the same for flax. In some populations, flax can be a positive because of this, and we’ll discuss that later.
Flaxseed shouldn’t be eaten or taken as a supplement during pregnancy because of the lignans and their estrogen activity.
The Trouble Maker
Raw flaxseed contains a compound family called glycosides which are toxic to us. We never want to eat raw flaxseed, especially in large amounts. Keep your intake less than 5 tablespoonfuls daily and you’ll probably be safe. It’s best to have toasted flax or use flax as part of a cooked meal.
Flax Supplements – Are There Health Benefits?
Small amounts of flax daily is a great contributor to a healthy diet. It’s rich in fiber, protein, and vitamins. You can’t go wrong.
I believe that the lines that are connecting flax to direct health benefits are weak at best. The lines are spider-web strands, not steel cables. I’d be happy if they were as strong as flax fibers, but alas, they are not.
Here’s what I mean. Google “flaxseed benefit.” And no, the media isn’t skewing these results to show only negative press on flax. You’ll see phrases like this:
- “Flax is a magical food”
- “Flax is rich in omegas”
- “Flax lowers cholesterol”
- “Flax supports a healthy prostate”
Flax has been purported to help out hot flashes, to support a healthy prostate, improve blood sugar, resolve constipation, lower cholesterol, and more.
Here’s the thing. If we look at each one of those based on what we really know about the plant, we can beat those claims up pretty quickly:
- “Flax is a magical food” – Just stop it.
- “Flax is rich in omegas” – Actually rich in ALA, but we probably aren’t using much of it at all.
- “Flax lowers cholesterol” – Well, duh. It has soluble fiber in it. So does Cheerios, technically.
- “Flax supports a healthy prostate” – Yeah by giving men an estrogenic compound.
If you look even closer, many of the health claims use this little, cute, liability-removing phrase: “nutrients found in flaxseed…” That means the authors understand there is a dose-related effect but are concealing that truth to get more people in “Team Flaxseed Oil Supplements.”
The data on use for hot flashes and prostate health is inconclusive. The lignan activity is what is considered to be helpful for those conditions, but in clinical trials, it doesn’t stand up. Because of the high fiber and ALA, it should be healthy for your heart, blood sugar, and cholesterol. But it definitely doesn’t help with blood sugar, and cholesterol impacts are minimal, mostly coming from the fiber content. Meaning you can just increase your fiber with anything else – even a wicker laundry basket, I guess – and it would improve cholesterol. It better resolve constipation, since fiber is one of our 4 Pillars of Gut Health.
We have enough data to know that flaxseed and the oil supplements will have minimal impact on the health claims people take it for. If it works for you, great! If you want to try it, that’s awesome too. You’re an adult and can do that. We just have to be aware of the quality issues around flaxseed oil supplements.
Flaxseed Supplements – Quality A-Z
The first and most important thing to know about making flaxseed supplements is that the magical oil found within flaxseed goes rancid within minutes of being extracted. This happens not only at the manufacturing level but even in your kitchen. If you take flaxseed and crush it, the oil is exposed to the air and not stabilized by antioxidant compounds found in the seed, leading quickly to spoiling of the oil. There was one piece of data I found where they estimated 70% of a bottle of flaxseed oil can be rancid before it reaches consumers.
There are things we can do to prevent rancidity. First, don’t crush it. Seriously. I’ll spoil the ending by saying a few tablespoons of flaxseed is what I recommend, not the supplements. If making crushed or powdered seed, or extracting the oil, it’s best to process these in a way that prevents rancidity. This usually involves nitrogen flushing, UV-protected bottles, low-temperature storage, and more.
Rancid flax has a very distinct smell and taste, so it isn’t difficult to identify. It smells like varnish. It has a burnt or bitter odor and taste. You’ll know it if you get it.
A final note on the rancidity of flaxseed oil is about cooking with it. Don’t do it! Flaxseed oil at high temperatures will go rancid right in front of you. It will be gross and unhealthy. Use avocado oil, coconut oil, or extra virgin olive oil instead.
To get the oil, we have to extract it from the seed. Seems obvious, but there’s a process for it that can get screwed up, so we need to say it explicitly. To extract the oil in the best possible manner, we do so using a low-heat pressing technique. If you do high-power, high-pressure squeezing, you’ll ruin the oil.
Some companies will use solvents to extract the oil out as it is cheap and effective. As we’ve discussed before with CBD, these harmful solvents are often carcinogens and are found in trace amounts in the final product. We want to avoid flaxseed that comes from companies that use solvents to extract it out.
As with many oils, adulteration is a real problem. This means that they “cut” or dilute the flaxseed oil with cheaper oils like soybean or sunflower oil. Both of those are lacking in the nutrients that are unique to flaxseed, meaning you’re getting a bunk product.
Since flax is a plant, we want to test flaxseed oil supplements thoroughly for pesticides.
Flaxseed Oil Supplements – Our Recommendation
If you are interested in using it, please do. Know that with our Vitality Approved products, you are getting potent and pure options. If you currently use it for all of its reported health benefits, I’d recommend you take pause.
The unique property of flaxseed oil is truly only the lignans. While rich in ALAs, it has a solid dose of Omega-6 (we get too much). As we discussed, the ALA will yield very little usable Omega-3, especially if it is competing with the Omega-6 that’s there. To get enough ALA to actually have an impact on EPA and DHA, the serving size is huge. It ends up being too costly and you get too much Omega-6. What’s worse, is it is lacking the fiber and protein that make flaxseed awesome, all while potentially exposing you to a rancid oil.
For us, it’s flaxseed all the way. But don’t use so so much flaxseed that your teeth look like the top half of a poppy bagel. Stick to 1-2 tablespoonfuls of whole flaxseed daily for the biggest bang for your buck. In my eyes, flaxseed is an amazing fiber option that also gives you a good dose (while incomplete) of protein.
Buy whole flaxseed from reputable brands. If you want powdered or chopped, we have options, but you can make that yourself with any food processor.
Since we’re talking about fiber, let me let you in on a silly inside joke:
In pharmacy school, each therapy option for a disease state was put through rigorous pros and cons so we understood benefits and liabilities. Early on, we learned about colloidal oatmeal for skin rashes (like poison ivy). One of the cons was that it can clog your drain since you’re using it in a bathtub. “Clogged waste pipes” was a ridiculous (but true) con to colloidal oatmeal that we had to write on our chart. It became how we described constipation from then on out.
So with flaxseed, since it’s a fiber, drink it with plenty of water. Or you’ll have clogged waste pipes.
DIY Flaxseed Oil
Making fresh flax oil is the way to roll. It takes less than 10 minutes. Here’s a great recipe:
- Simmer 1/2 cup of flaxseed in two cups of water. Keep stirring and do not let boil, or overcook.
- When it turns into a gelatinous mass, the consistency of egg white, then you have flax oil.
- Put it through a curved strainer, and help push through with the back of a small ladle.
- Store refrigerated, and do not keep for more than two weeks.
Fresh, healthy, and inexpensive.
Flax On? Flax Off!
Flaxseed is an excellent addition to a healthy diet. It’s rich in fiber, protein, some vitamins, and even has some healthy Omega-3 precursors.
Flaxseed oil as a supplement isn’t as great. It’s removing the healthy fiber and much of the protein, leaving Omega-6 and Omega-3, but not in truly usable forms of the essential fatty acid. We need to reduce Omega-6 as much as possible, so taking flaxseed oil isn’t helping our cause. It is much more efficient for both cost and usability to use Omega-3 from fish.
If you do want flaxseed oil, make your own using our recipe above.
Keep flax consumption low, even if you are using it for fiber. No more than a few tablespoonfuls daily is best.
All in all, the health benefits of flax are oversold. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate flaxseed for what it is: an excellent fiber and protein.
Just trying to keep it real…
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth