Flax for human consumption: seed or oil?
benefits of flaxseed otherwise known as linseed, one of the oldest
cultivated plants used by man.
Lately, numerous studies have been published regarding the health benefits of flaxseed otherwise known as linseed, one of the oldest cultivated plants used by man. We have used its fibres for textiles and papers, its oil in paints and in restoring precious woods. Ancient civilisations in Europe and China used the seed for its medicinal properties against external inflammation and constipation. Today its health benefits are coming to light. Studies have shown that flaxseed is the greatest source, in terms of quantity, of vegetable omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega-3 can be found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, walnuts, wheat germ and soy oils. Modern low fat diets do not provide enough omega-3 fatty acids and flaxseed oil offers an alternative to omega-3s derived from fish. Essential Fatty Acids, part of the human body's cell membranes, must be provided through diet as the body is unable to produce it. Omega-3s are key elements in the development of infant brain, nervous system and vision, and have been found to have positive effects on cardiovascular health and diabetes, and a protective effect against prostate cancer. Flaxseed oil is not only rich in omega-3, but also in lignans, a phyto hormone that has the same hormone-balancing effect as soy isoflavones and found only in the seed. Because lignans are removed during oil processing, consumers, in order to reap the full benefits of lignans, must consume flax seed. Ground flaxseed can be sprinkled on many dishes from salads to pasta and vegetables. It can also be consumed as flaxseed oil for use in salad dressings or mixed in with yoghurts. Most industrialised countries do allow the commercialisation and sale of flaxseed oil, either as oil or encapsulated. However, the law and the enforcement decree have forbidden the sale of flaxseed oil in France as it toxic when heated. According to the French Superior Council for Public Hygiene (FSCPH), the stability of flaxseed oil is not secured, and sale of such product would require guidelines. Even if flaxseed oil has a high content of vegetable-derived alpha-linolenic acids, the FSCPH maintains that nothing shows that a specified supplementation in alpha-linolenic acids from this source has a nutritional value. There is currently no alpha-linolenic acids deficiency among the general population, and a balanced diet should provide the sufficient amount of alpha-linolenic acids. They claim that the therapeutic benefits of such fatty acids in some pathological conditions do not constitute a valid reason for the commercialisation of flaxseed oil as a dietary supplement. "The lifting of the banning decree would permit the commercialisation of this oil in the culinary sector for salad dressings. However, the limited size of this market could explain why the trade has not wished to lift the ban yet," Francois Bert, director of the French Technical Institute of Linen, told FoodNavigator.com. "However, the consumer can get the benefits of flaxseed oil by eating products derived from animals whose diets include flaxseed," he added. Some French food manufacturers do offer food products enriched with flaxseed-derived omega-three fatty acids: eggs by Matines and dairy products by Pâturages de France for example. Fed with flaxseed, hens and cows produce eggs and milk naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Valorex, an animal nutrition company providing the flaxseed-enriched animal feed, created the Bleu Blanc Coeur association, along with its logo, to promote the use of flaxseed and to guarantee that products come from animals fed with flaxseeds. Christophe Mallet, director of the Association Générale des Producteurs de Lin (General Association of Linen Producers), commented that, even though his association is mainly concerned with linen as a fibre, they are following up the research done on flaxseed oil health benefits. "We are in favour of the use of flaxseed oil for human consumption," he added. It seems that only an increased consumer demand in France for flaxseed oil could lead to the lift of the ban and to the creation of guidelines to guarantee the quality and purity of the oil for human consumption. In the mean time, health conscious consumers can buy flaxseed oil in neighbouring countries or through the Internet.