By Steve Gagné
Question: I have been reading lots of material about flax seed and flax oil.They are starting to get as much attention in the field of natural foods as soy. What is your take on flax?
Answer: Like soy, flax is gaining ground as the next “great thing” you can do for your health. And again like soy, much of the scientific research on flax and flax oil comes from similar sources, “agenda driven” science funded by special interest groups intent on saturating the market place with products that are easily mass produced and marketed with inflated prices. Much of the research on flax oil, (the oil extracted from flax seed or linseed), is focused on the high amounts it contains of what are called omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha linolenic acid) are essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body and therefore must be provided by diet. These essential fatty acid precursors are converted in the body to EPA and DHA, both of which are supportive of hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins, which are vital to the regulation of metabolism and other regulatory functions. Refining and hydrogenation destroy the vital omega-3 oils leaving modern day consumers with high omega-6 fatty acids and little of the omega 3s so important to biological functions.
Some experienced health practitioners believe flax and flax oil to be the ultimate panaceas for many problems. Others feel the tiny seed is simply another “band aid” approach to health and that it would be wise to seek more reliable sources of omega-3 fats available in fish liver oils that, unlike flax oil, is readily converted to a usable form by the human body. Fish along with wild and naturally raised animal meats and eggs were traditional sources of Omega-3 for thousands of years.
Speaking of thousands of years lets go back a bit and consider some history on flax. There are several commonly expressed opinions and statements from both researchers and lay people pertaining to the historical relevance of flax. These same statements are used to support the idea that consuming flax is beneficial to health. Let’s take a look at some of these statements.
“Flax has been used for five thousand years in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and numerous other places throughout the world.”
“Flax oil was used in ancient Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs.”
“Flax was once a staple food of the Roman Empire.”
These and many other statements along with the latest scientific research is enough to convince even the most skeptical of us that we are indeed missing out on something if we are not consuming flax in some form or another.
While it is true that flax has been in use by ancient cultures for thousands of years and was used extensively throughout the world in textile manufacturing, as a base for paint and for preserving wood; it was not a principle food of any culture. Evidence does exist, however, to show it has been used as a supplemental food when traditional foods were scarce due to adverse climactic conditions and other destabilizing influences on some cultures. As a food, flax may have been used as a last resort in times of famine, as is the case in Ethiopia and a few other places of the world during drought when grain crops were compromised. More recently, in the last few hundred years or so, ground flax, boiled in water, was used as both an internal remedy for colds, coughs and urinary irritation, as well as a medicinal poultice applied externally for boils and abscesses. Therefore, while flax seed does have some limited use as a food in recent history, flax oil, on the other hand has no historical use as a food.
In Food in Antiquity, a survey of the diet of early peoples by Brothwell and Brothwell we read:
“...in Mesopotamia and Egypt, though it may have been more valued as a textile material than for its oil potential. In Europe, however, the picture is different. Flax was grown in Neolithic Spain, Holland and England, and the Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings have yielded seeds from the beginning of the third millennium BC. A sort of linseed cake was found at Robenhousen...” This “sort of linseed cake” is certainly not a cake made from linseeds and does not mean it was used as a Food. Pressing seeds onto balls is a common traditional method of oil extraction. The compressing of seeds into a rounded shape was a way of preparing seeds for grinding by hand with a rock to extract the oil which could then be used to cure wood, leather or rope and for mixing to form a highly absorbent and drying paint. Eating whole flax seed pressed into a patty of some sort would cause serious digestive distress and is not something any intelligent prehistoric human being would do more than once, if that, so these “cakes” certainly were not food. Neither was the oil used for human consumption because it is highly unstable and traditional peoples did not have refrigerators, a technology needed to prevent the fast rate of rancidity flax oil goes through when exposed to oxygen.
Carbonized flax together with cameline seed have been found at a Roman Iron Age site in Denmark. Both of these seeds yield high oil content and it seems as if they were grown together for this purpose. At the same site in Denmark was found what resembled a “cake” of poppy seeds, also suspected to be another source of oil. The same source (Food In Antiquity) also states:
“None of these oil/producing plants can be said to have had any great significance as food but in the case of the olive...”
While these seeds (flax and poppy) were grown for their oil, it is highly unlikely the oil was consumed as a food as both oils are of a highly unstable nature and not suitable for human consumption by crude methods of extraction. Many scientific studies on omega 3 fatty acids are used by proponents of flax oil to encourage the belief that flax oil, because of its extensive use in paint and other industrial uses for thousands of years, somehow means it was also consumed as a food for thousands of years, the same goes for the seeds. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
All right, let’s indulge ourselves for a moment and say yes, it is true: flax formed an integral part of some ancient peoples diets. Was this a good thing? If current science is correct when it stresses the importance of eating raw unheated flax oil because it cannot withstand the high temperatures of cooking, or that flax oil should be refrigerated to prevent rapid deterioration, or that a certain toxic chemical in flax seed can only be neutralized through cooking or processing of some sort… One would be hard pressed to believe that the ancient Chinese, Indians and Egyptians with thousands of years of wise traditions in food and medicine unwittingly created health hazards for themselves by cooking their food with flax oil or eating raw flax seeds. Additionally, there is no reason to believe they would consider consuming raw such foul tasting oil when other healthy and tasty fats and oils were prevalent and essential worldwide staple foods. Storing and preserving flax oil for human consumption was not an option for traditional peoples. There is no evidence for cooking with flax oil either. The only evidence for the use of flax oil in a traditional setting is for purposes other than human consumption.
Historical evidence is always subject to interpretation and when modern scientific methods are applied to the evidence, we find, in the case of flax oil, little reason to consume it among traditional peoples due to its harmful qualities when not properly handled with modern technologies.
A quick read on the can of linseed oil found in your local hardware store describes the way linseed oil (flax) heats as it dries and how it deeply penetrates wood. This is in reference to applying the oil to wood in order to preserve it. The can also says it contains 100% linseed oil and “Danger, harmful if swallowed!” Solvent extraction for commercial linseed oil removes much of the antioxidants that encourage rancidity thus helping to stabilize the polyunsaturated fatty acids. However, when these fatty acids are not protected they produce gummy plastic-like residues called polymers, toxic substances unfit for human consumption and have destabilizing effects on cell walls as they cause blood cells to clump together. Modern “food grade” flax oil is now said to be “cold pressed,” a term that, according to most experts, simply does not exist since some heat is generated through the grinding of seeds, especially hard seeds the likes of flax. Any heating or exposure to air of this highly unstable plant oil causes oxidation, which leads to high free radical production when it is consumed.
While the majority of research on flax oil appears to be positive in nature, it is important to read between the lines of these studies. Some other studies do not support the trend that ‘flax oil is good for human consumption.’ Through his research at the University of Virginia Medical School in Charlottesville, Dr. Charles Myers found that flax seed oil increased the growth of prostate cancer cells by 300% leading Dr. Myers and associates to proclaim flax oil to be the most powerful stimulant they know for prostate cancer cells.
This of course is in direct contrast to studies that have shown flax oil to be a strong immune “stimulant” and thus helpful for cancer. Because a substance stimulates the immune system does not mean it is good for it. A healthy substance is more likely to enhance immunity or support immunity, not stimulate it. Viruses and other interfering organisms tend to stimulate immune response. Therefore, the language used in scientific studies is not always what it means or for that matter, what it seems. Another example of this shows up in studies where flax oil proved to be effective in lowering total body cholesterol. Well, there are two types of cholesterol, a good one and a bad one. Flax oil was shown to have lowered both. This not a good thing but it looks like it is the way it has been presented.
Another study from Denmark at the Clinical Chemistry Department of Aalborg Hospital compared the effects of cod liver oil and flax seed oil on the EPA content of blood fats. After one week, the cod liver oil showed a tenfold increase in the EPA content and the flax oil showed only insignificant increases.
The lignans found in flax oil should be another concern for many people; these steroid like compounds may not be as healthy as we have been led to believe, especially at the levels found in both flax and soy. Sesamin, (a lignan with strong antioxidant properties found in sesame seeds) or the lignans found in vegetables, nuts, and grains are different from the toxic lignans found in flax. A little research into plant lignans can reveal some interesting yet disturbing information. Apparently, there are about 450 types of known lignans. Just what are these lignans? Lignans are often described as “potent naturally occurring substances with many toxic side effects.” One could argue that many plants we consume may have varying degrees of toxic side effects due to lignans. True, but flax is recognized as being the highest source of plant lignans, up to one hundred times more than other sources. This is something the scientific literature promotes as a good thing. When these lignans are converted in the body to mammalian lignans they have estrogen like and anti-estrogen effects. In turn, these compounds, touted and praised by the latest scientific literature, are similar to those found in soy. These estrogenic compounds, contrary to what is being promoted, are not beneficial to health.
Then there are the anti nutrients linatine and cyanogenic glycosides found in flax. Linatine is a vitamin B 6 antagonist. Flax also contains a cyanide containing glucoside called linamarin. This substance releases hydrogen cyanide under moist and acidic conditions (inside your body). Normally, when processed with chemical solvents and high temperatures the enzyme linase is destroyed so it is not a problem, but this is not the case with the cold/expeller pressed flax oil or raw flax seeds preferred by consumers. This same toxic substance can be found in lima beans and the cassava plant, both used as foods among indigenous peoples for thousands of years. However, both of these foods are processed by soaking and cooking before being consumed, not the case with flax seeds or flax oil.
It is currently suggested by nutritional experts that 1 to 2 tablespoons of flax oil be used daily if used at all. Why the limitations? These suggestions do not apply to olive oil, coconut oil, or animal fats all of which have been used abundantly throughout the ancient world and up to the present. Being in the field of Natural Health, I counsel people from all lifestyles. I have found that people attempting to follow natural diets, especially Vegans and Vegetarians, generally do not consume flax oil or flax seeds in small amounts as suggested, rather, like their often excessive consumption of soy products, canola oil and soy oil—there is a tendency toward more is better. Could this become a problem of toxicity for many people or can we rationalize it as acceptable because flax oil contains omega 3s, lignans and other isolated components that supposedly have remarkable health benefits?
Moreover, in spite of great effort by some courageous people to bring to public awareness the detrimental effects of trans fats, many people who consume flax oil are still unaware of this problem. Trans fats interfere with the conversion of EFAs in the body. So, are the many people who consume large amounts of trans fats wasting their time taking flax oil for the omega 3 fatty acids? If saturated fats including animal fats, are important to the conversion process of the EFAs found in flax oil: are the people who avoid these fats or those who are on low fat diets wasting money and time on flax oil? Many vegans, raw fooders and vegetarians rely on flax oil as their primary source of omega 3s. These same people tend to avoid saturated fats (important factors in assisting in the conversion process of EFAs) while at the same time many of these people consume trans fats (known to inhibit the conversion process of EFAs) in the form of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in margarine and other foods. Does this defeat the purpose of consuming flax oil all together if either one of these factors are part of ones chosen lifestyle? The science would seem to indicate this is so.
Teas and medicines are one thing but using flax seed and flax oil as a regular staple food does raise many questions. Perhaps what is needed is a manual listing all the dos and don’ts required to insure the absorption and assimilation of flax and flax oil in order to reap the supposed benefits.
Apparently at one point the FDA had initial concerns about the hydrogen cyanide found in flax seeds but later the agency stated there was no concern. Now that is reassuring, an FDA sanction. Most health conscious people are aware of the lack of consistency with this agency and how the influence of corporations and private interest groups can be, and has been, used to sway their decisions about food and ingredients.
I am not a scientist but I am an observant witness and am fully aware of how science from one source can be used to refute science from another source, especially in the field of nutrition. A case in point is the ongoing soy debate. Both sides use scientific studies to back their causes and for the person with little experience in how scientific studies can be bought by large corporations, it can be very confusing. For me, with 25 years of counseling and teaching experience in the field of natural health, I have found that regular use of non-traditional soy products and flax has done more harm than good for people seeking to improve their health. Unfortunately, with these examples anyway, the time-tested experiences of consumers far outweigh the scientific theories.
Traditional foods containing omega 3 fatty acids include many dark leafy greens, wild freshwater micro algae (not SCD legal), sardines, anchovies, walnuts, wild salmon, free-range eggs, pasture-raised beef and numerous other natural, unprocessed foods. Flax oil contains approximately 60% omega 3 fatty acids. Sardine oil and anchovy oil contain about half as much, but traditional peoples ate the whole fish, not just the oil. All of the other foods mentioned have low percentages of omega 3s and it is the combination of omega 3s with the other ingredients in these nutrient-dense foods that once supplied us with balanced nutrition. That no natural food source contains the levels of omega 3s found in flax oil is good reason to question the validity of it. While omega 3 fatty acids are essential they are also highly perishable and unstable, especially flax oil. Western nutrition’s fostering of the “more is better” theory has done little to improve the overall health of people and flax oil is another example of taking an isolated ingredient, promoting the quantity of it and making it look like more than it truly is.
Who eats flax seeds and flax oil? While the food industry is poised to position flax where soy now rules as king, “naturalists” represent the majority of people who are consuming both flax seeds and flax oil. Among natural food consumers, flax oil is the new kid on the block, but flax seed has been around for at least forty years, albeit in small alternative lifestyle groups. In America, flax seed was, and still is, primarily used as a laxative by those suffering with chronic constipation. Most of the people who use flax grind the seeds and mix it with water or their favorite beverage for the sole purpose of relieving constipation, and for the most part, it works. However, in my experience with clients using flax seeds for this problem, I have found that 10 and even 20 years later this “laxative” has done little more than temporarily relieve the symptoms of constipation while increasing digestive distress and creating a dependency on flax seeds.
Having had the opportunity to observe the effects of flax oil on clients for some years now I have found a few tell tale signs that reveal the adverse effects of this product on human health. If you experience these symptoms or have any of these signs, you might want to consider an alternative to flax oil. Alternatives are fish oil, krill oil and of course, a healthy balanced diet with traditional foods that contain ample amounts of omega-3 fats.
Symptoms that often manifest after consuming flax oil for a week or longer:
a. The appearance of bruises. These may appear anywhere on the body especially the arms and legs with no history of impact to the area. They just appear.
b. Sudden appearance of brown spots on the face and hands that do not go away. These are often called liver spots. It has been suggested that this is a sign of free radical damage from highly perishable polyunsaturated flax oil.
c. Intermittent periods of nausea.
d. Loss of mobility and spastic movements.
e. Muscle cramping, especially the calves of the legs.
f. Increased signs of aging including wrinkles and flaccid muscle tone.
Of all the great civilizations of antiquity that reaped the many benefits of the flax plant—a plant of such importance that it helped to define cultures the world over with style through clothing and art (paint and ink)—why did they not also consider it a daily food if it was so “good” for them?