The Benefits of Flax

| September/October 1998

Recipe: Flax Spread 

Sometimes we scour the planet for the most exotic, expensive remedies while ignoring more affordable ones right at hand. So it is with flaxseed. Few eat this nutty-tasting food, yet it costs less than two dollars a pound. More importantly, it helps prevent cancer, assuages menopausal symptoms, and appears to improve cardiovascular health. And, once you get the hang of it, incorporating flaxseed or its oil into your daily diet is easy.

An Ancient Medicine

Botanists know flax as Linum usitatissimum. The rest of us know it as linseed, the source of linen fiber, linseed oil, and linoleum. People used to enjoy eating the seeds. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, flax was a common ingredient in breads. These people also recognized flax’s medicinal potential. In the first century, the Roman scholar and naturalist Pliny, known as “the Elder,” cited thirty remedies using flax, and many of them match today’s scientific knowledge. As Pliny noted, flax makes an excellent poultice, throat-soothing brew, and mild laxative.

For the nearly two thousand years since Pliny’s time, flax has remained a favorite folk medicine. But, until recently, only a handful of health-conscious cooks, some Scandinavian bakers, and most Ethiop­ians have eaten flax. That may soon change.

A Modern Discovery: Breast Cancer Prevention

About a decade ago, several research teams, encouraged by news that flaxseed behaved like a weak form of estrogen, wondered whether flax might inhibit breast cancer. Although some human estrogens can promote breast cancer, estrogenlike compounds found in plants—called phytoestrogens—may actually block this effect. This appears to be the case for soybeans, whose phytoestrogens may contribute to the low rate of breast cancer among Asians who eat a soy-rich diet.

To test the flax hypothesis, the researchers studied laboratory rats. In one set of experiments, they fed three groups of rats a high-fat diet, known to contribute to some cases of breast cancer. One group’s diet contained 5 percent flaxseed meal, a second group’s diet contained 10 percent flaxseed meal, and the third group received just the high-fat diet and no flax. Both flax-fed groups showed vastly reduced levels of the markers of the early stages of breast cancer, the researchers reported, and, as compared to the control group, the rats eating the diet with 5 percent flax fared best.

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