Common flax is a food and fibre crop also known as linseed, or by its Latin name, Linum usitatissimum, which means ‘flax of many uses’. This versatile plant can be spun and woven into linen fabric, and the oil extracted from its seeds has been used to make oil paints for centuries.
As a foodstuff, flax was used mainly for animal feed until relatively recently, but as our understanding of food science has increased, the use of flax in the human diet has increased with it. Flaxseed is highly nutritious, and can be used as a grain alternative in coeliac and paleo diets, and also as a vegan alternative to egg. It can also be ground into flour for use in gluten-free baking, although allergy sufferers should always check the label for confirmation that the place of manufacture was free of contaminants.
History of flax
For most of its history, flax has been used primarily to make fabric, with the earliest wild flax fabrics dating back an incredible thirty thousand years to the late Stone Age. The plant was first domesticated in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent over nine thousand years ago, where it was spun into linen by the ancient Egyptians and used to wrap mummies.
By five thousand years ago, the cultivation of flax for linen had spread to India, China and Europe, and was used by the Romans to make sails for their ships. It fell out of use somewhat with the fall of the Roman Empire, but was revived in Europe in the eighth century CE by Charlemagne, and remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era. It was introduced to the USA by early colonists, where it also became a key crop.
Over the last century, flax has fallen out of favour as a textile due to the availability of cheaper natural fibres like cotton, and more durable manmade fabric like polyester. In recent years, however, it has been reevaluated as a food crop due to its high content of important nutrients such as Omega-3 oils, and its viability as a grain alternative for coeliac and paleo diets.
Benefits of flax
Flax is thought to have various health benefits, particularly with regard to maintaining a healthy heart. This is thought to be due to its high content of fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant compounds known as lignans, which reduce the levels of fat and glucose in the blood.
In particular, flax is high in the omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, which has been linked with a lower risk of stroke, heart attacks, and chronic kidney disease. In one study, people with heart disease were given a daily dose of 2.9 grams for one year, resulting in significantly lower rates of death and heart attacks than people in the control group.
Daily consumption of flax can help lower blood pressure, and has also been shown to lower cholesterol, both in terms of overall cholesterol and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and particularly as a supplement to traditional cholesterol medication. Several studies have also shown that flax can aid weight loss in overweight and obese people.
To get the most benefit from flax, choose brown flax over golden, as this contains the highest quantity of beneficial compounds like omega-3. Mill the seeds in a spice or coffee grinder to break the tough outer shell and make the nutrients more accessible .
Flax seeds are a good source of fibre, with 20g providing 15% of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for men, and 25% for women. They are also a good source of protein, including essential amino acids arginine and glutamine, and although they are composed of 43% fat, a high proportion of this is heart-healthy omega-3.
In fact, flax seeds are the second-best (after chia seeds) known source of omega-3 fatty acid ALA, as well as being one of the richest sources of lignans, which is thought to be why they’re so good for your heart. They also provide several vitamins and minerals, including thiamine, copper, molybdenum, magnesium and phosphorus.
Chia seeds are used in food for a variety of reasons. They may be eaten for their health benefits, or simply for their texture and distinctive nutty flavour. They can also be used to make gluten-free flour, and, because of their high soluble fibre content, as a thickening agent or a vegan alternative to eggs. It is difficult to find another food with all the exact qualities of flax, so what you use to replace it depends on which of these qualities is most important in your dish.
Chia seeds are probably the closest match. They too are high in omega-3, gluten-free, and can be made into flour. They are also high in soluble fibre, which means they can stand in as a thickener and vegan ‘egg’, too. Chia seeds can become slimy when wet, however, so they will not provide the same flavour and texture as flax.
In terms of crunch and nutty flavour, hemp seeds are another good alternative. They are also high in omega-3 and amino acids, but don’t have the same thickening qualities, and can’t be used as an egg replacement.
Recipes for flax
If you’re looking for a way to add some heart-healthy flax seeds to your diet, why not try these simple apple muffins? Made from a deliciously moist apple flavoured sponge, these tempting little cakes are also gluten free and suitable for vegans.
Flax is great for vegan baking, as it can be used as a substitute for eggs. To find out how you can adapt recipes to make them vegan, take a look at our how-to guide to replacing eggs with flaxseed.