Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are currently recognized as appropriate sources of omega-3 fatty acids by several US government agencies, including USDA and NIH. These agencies have held conferences and workshops on the importance of omega-3 fat , which have included recommendations for consuming flaxseed.1
There are, however, present-day challengers on the Internet to the use of flax as food. The Now Age Press website is a typical example. Critics take issue with any statement made in recent years that refers to flaxseed as having a history as a “staple” food in any culture. These critics will admit only to the use of flaxseed as food in times of famine. In addition to their challenge to the notion of the use of flaxseed or flaxseed oil as food in antiquity, as well as to aspects of safety related to the presence of lignans and various anti-nutrients such as cyanogenic glycosides in flaxseed, the writers for these websites make substantive mistakes about composition, stating, for example, that hemp oil has levels of omega-3 fatty acids as high as flax oil. Actually, flax oil contains about 60 percent of total fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids, compared to about 20 percent for hemp oil.2
When we search out historical documents written a century ago, however, we are presented with another view. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica reported that “Linseed [flaxseed] formed an article of food among the Greeks and Romans, and it is said that the Abyssinians at the present day eat it roasted. The oil is to some extent used as food in Russia and in parts of Poland and Hungary.”
The article also describes concern voiced over “. . . direct adulterations. . . [by]. . . admixture of cheaper and inferior oil-seeds. . . .” In 1864, a union of traders of linseed oil was formed in England to prevent this adulteration by monitoring all imported oil.3
The more recent Cambridge World History of Food records the use of flaxseed oil for cooking in Russia in the 19th Century and the use of seeds for making tea.4
A recent text on flaxseed, edited by researchers at the University of Toronto, contains discussions of historical uses as a food, both directly and indirectly. In the introduction, we learn that the edible flaxseed was the one predominantly grown in India, that flaxseed is consumed in the diet as oil in China, that it is consumed in Ethiopia in a stew (wat), as a porridge (gufmo), and as a drink (chilka), and has been part of the traditional foods in Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs.5
In the US, the earliest record in Food and Drug Administration (FDA) writings raises the question of GRAS status for flaxseed use in foods. This appears in correspondence to the FDA in 1948 when the food industry initiated an inquiry about the use of flax in cereal foods. The FDA originally declined the GRAS status request because the use of flax, as (or in) food prior to 1958, was in other countries and not in the US. In addition, the FDA indicated concern about untreated flaxseed being a source of toxic hydrocyanic acid and posted an import alert in 1978; this decision was abandoned in 1982 when the import alert was canceled and flaxseed was permitted in bread in levels of 10-12 percent. The agency stated that there was no concern that there would be “. . . any more exposure to hydrogen cyanide than from other foods such as lima beans, fava beans, chickpeas, cassava, yams, cashews or almonds. . . “6
Researchers from two universities evaluated flaxseed powder consumption in women and reported that the lignans, which they considered as protective against certain cancers, were normally metabolized by the microflora in the gut. These researchers reported that the possible cyanide exposure from 60 grams of raw flaxseed in healthy individuals is not hazardous; further they indicated that raw flaxseed is traditionally consumed in 10-gram amounts (approximately 1 tablespoon).7
So how much flaxseed, or flaxseed oil is appropriate and unquestionably safe? The recommendation from the US government agencies is usually 2 tablespoons of flaxseed per day to supply omega-3 fatty acids for a 2000 kcal diet. (The flaxseed needs to be ground in order for the proper digestion of the seeds to take place.) Two tablespoons of flaxseed is about 20 grams of seed and since there is about 40 percent oil in the seeds and about 50-60 percent omega-3 in the oil, 20 grams of seed could provide about 8 grams of flaxseed oil and about 4 grams alpha-linolenic acid, the basic omega-3 fatty acid. Four grams of omega-3 fatty acids is about 36 calories, which is slightly more than the usual recommendation of 1.5 percent of calories for a 2000 calorie intake. The amount of flaxseed oil needed to provide this much omega-3 is about 1.5 to 2 tsp per day.8 If you are getting omega-3 fatty acids from other sources in your diet, then the recommended amount of flaxseed oil would be less. (To be continued.)
- Meetings on essential fats in 2000 at NIH and 2001 at USDA.
- The Now Age Press website
- The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, New York, 1911, Volume 16, pp. 734-735.
- The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2000, pp. 1230, 1242.
- A. Judd. “Flax–Some Historical Considerations” in Flaxseed in Human Nutrition, S.C. Cunnane and I.U. Thompson, Editors, AOCS Press, Champaign, IL, 1995, pp. 1-10.
- J.E. Vanderveen. “Regulation of Flaxseed as a Food Ingredient in the United States” in Flaxseed in Human Nutrition, S.C. Cunnane and I.U. Thompson, Editors, AOCS Press, Champaign, IL, 1995, pp. 363-366.
- J.W. Lampe, M.C. Martini, M.S. Kurzer, H. Adlercreutaz, J.L. Slavin. Urinary lignan and isoflavonoid excretion in premenopausal women consuming flaxseed powder. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1994;60:122-128.
- M.G. Enig. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press, 2000, p. 106.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2002.