As America grapples with its obesity epidemic and other diet-driven health problems, interest in healthy plant-based eating continues to rise. Whether you’re transitioning to a vegan diet and looking for those heart-healthy omega-3s, or just hoping to optimize nutritional bang-for-the-buck at mealtime, embrace the mighty flax seed — here’s how!
Just the Flax
Flax is one of the oldest known fiber crops, cultivated in ancient Egypt and China. Its Latin name is Linum usitatissimum, meaning “most useful.” Flax seeds contain all kinds of nutritional goodness, such as protein, calcium, magnesium, folate, thiamin, niacin, phosphorous, and zinc; but their nutritional super-hero trait involves omega-3 fatty acids.
There are two types of healthy fats known as omega-3s: short-chain alpha-linolenic acids (ALA), and long-chain omega-3 fats known as DHA and EPA. Humans definitely need ALA: it’s an essential nutrient, contained in just a few plant foods like flaxseed, chia seed, hempseed, canola oil, full-fat soy foods, and walnuts. Daily requirements are small, though, so that you can get all you need in just “a teaspoon of flaxseed oil or a tablespoon of canola oil or 3 to 4 walnut halves.”
DHA and EPA are the omega-3s found in fish oil and sea vegetables; we make these long-chain omega-3s from ALA, and they aren’t considered essential nutrients. The evidence so far is inconclusive as to whether vegans should supplement (sea-plant-derived) DHA and EPA, and many vegans do so just to be on the safe side — the conversion process from short to long-chain omega-3s is somewhat inefficient, and vegans tend to have lower levels of DHA and EPA than omnivores; but the jury is still out on exactly whether or how much that matters, in actual health outcomes related to vegan diets with vs. without DHA/EPA supplementation.
The key point here is that ALA — the omega-3s found in flaxseed — are essential nutrients fairly rare among plant-based foods, and required for synthesis of the other types of omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are important for heart health, brain health, and mood; there’s additional evidence that lignans and other molecules in flaxseed may help prevent cancer, stroke and diabetes. Flax also contains omega-6 fatty acids, another type of essential nutrient that the body can’t manufacture by itself.
Two types of flax seeds can be found at your local health food store, well stocked supermarkets, or online: golden or brown flax. They boast similar nutritional profiles, and contain the same amounts of short-chain ALA omega-3 fatty acids. All flax seeds should be ground before eating, or they can pass through your digestive system undigested. You can buy them pre-ground, and store them in the freezer — they can go rancid quickly, once ground! — or buy whole seeds and grind them in a spice grinder (or throw them whole into smoothies or other blender applications) just before using.
You can also enjoy the benefits of flaxseed via flax oil, which some evidence suggests may be a better source of omega-3′s for people over age 45. Flax oil (like hemp oil) has a very low smoke point, and so isn’t great for cooking — store it in the fridge to prevent spoilage, and use it cold in smoothies, dips, spreads, or drizzle over cooked veggies or stir-fries just before serving. It has a stronger flavor than most other oils, so remember you don’t need a lot: a drizzle will do.
A Flax for All Seasons
So you’ve obtained some flax seeds or oil, and you’re ready for some superfood nutritional happiness: now what? Glad you asked! Try these easy ways to power-pack your diet with those amazing and health-boosting little wonderseeds.
Add whole or ground flax seeds to any smoothie for instant nutritional pizazz — check out Becky Striepe’s 40 Days of Green Smoothies for a wealth of incredible smoothie ideas!
2. Salads and Dressings
Whirl whole flax seeds once or twice in the grinder or blender to coarsely grind them, then use to top green salads — add them right before serving for nutritious crunchy nom. For dressings, add small amounts of flax seeds (whole or ground) or oil to the blender with other ingredients, and puree smooth. Whisk 1/2 teaspoon flax oil into finished or prepackaged dressings, or shake well in a small jar with soy sauce-sesame oil-rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar-olive oil, for a quick and easy (nutritious!) salad topper.
3. Dips and Spreads
Stir a small amount of flax oil into pre-made dips or spreads, such as hummus or mustard. Add 1/2 teaspoon of oil or 1 teaspoon whole flax seeds to the blender when you make bean dip, vegan mayo, or dipping sauce for veggies or spring rolls.
Among its other wonderful properties, flax has a magical “goopiness” that’s perfect for eggless baking! Whisk 1 tablespoon ground flax seed with 3 tablespoons of water to make a perfect flax egg for your baked goods. Mix a tablespoon of ground flax seed into your recipes for breads, quickbreads, and muffins for both extra flavor and nutritional punch.
Omega-3s, calcium, protein, zinc, phosphorous, lignans and cruelty-free baking: it’s all there, in one tiny potent seed! Flaxseed offers an easy way to supercharge your meals with healthy nom.
So what are you waiting for? Embrace the superseed!