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Why It’s Important to Eat Undamaged Flax Seeds

Long before the modern wellness scene emerged, flax seeds have been known as a superfood.

They have been used for ages in food and medicine, and for good reason. Studies show flax seeds to have some major health benefits. Just one tablespoon packs a significant punch of healthy fats, fiber, protein, and key vitamins and minerals.

But to receive all these nutrients, itis also important to confirm the healthy fats in flax stay undamaged. Grinding flax seeds can damage healthy fats and turn this superfood into a food to put on the avoid list. Some talk about the phytoestrogen content of flax, but the main downside is the possibility you will buy ground flax that has been exposed to heat and light.

In this post, you will learn how to tap into the health benefits of flax seeds and navigate around the potential dangers with ground flax.

Health Benefits of Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are best known as an excellent source of healthy fats. The most notable of these healthy fats is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

This omega-3 fatty acid is not common in many foods, so this plant source is notable 1. In fact, it is one of the most abundant plant-based sources of ALA 2.

Flaxseeds are also an abundant source of phenolic compounds that show anticancer and antioxidant properties.

These phenolic compounds include phenolic acids, flavonoids, and lignans. Lignans have been studied for their ability to lower blood cholesterol and decrease liver disease risk factors.3 Lignans will lower testosterone in men, which depending on your goals may or may not be a good thing. In prostate cancer trials, flaxseed supplementation showed significant benefit in reducing PSA and proliferation of cancer cells.

Vitamins and minerals in flax seeds

Flaxseeds offer a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are rich in:

  • phosphorous,
  • magnesium,
  • calcium, and
  • potassium
  • They also contain Vitamin E. This antioxidant acts to preserve the healthy fatty acids and protect them from oxidation.

Flaxseed as an Egg Alternative 

Flaxseeds have a wonderfully nutty flavor. A mixture of ground flaxseeds and water makes for a great egg substitute. In baked goods, this slurry can act as a binder. To replace one egg, mix 1 tablespoon with 3 tablespoons water and allow it to sit for 10-15 minutes 1.

You can easily enjoy the flavor and nutritional benefits of flaxseeds by adding it to your morning smoothies, pancakes, oatmeal, and more.

For more on egg alternatives, also check out our post on Vegan eggs.

Whole Flaxseed vs Ground Flaxseed

Flaxseeds’ health benefits can be gained by consuming them whole, ground, or in oil form. The market is saturated with flaxseed products, but, as is the case with most health foods, not all flaxseeds are created equally.

Whole flax seeds can be hard on digestion

Flaxseeds in their whole form are difficult for the human digestive system to break down 1. Therefore, eating them whole often results in them passing through our system unaltered. This means our bodies do not get any of the beneficial nutrients flax seeds have to offer.

Grinding flax seeds unlocks nutrients

Grinding flax seeds before eating is key to unlocking their maximum nutrient potential.

Problem solved, right? Ground flaxseeds are better than whole. The answer is yes. But also, no.

Ground flax seeds are prone to oxidation

Ground flaxseeds are vulnerable to oxidation, which would break down those beneficial fatty acids we talked about and deliver free radicals rather than key nutrients. The key reasons for this oxidation are light and oxygen.

Once the flaxseeds are ground, they are subject to both these elements and the process begins. If you purchase pre-ground flaxseeds, there is no telling how long and to what degree your flaxseeds have been exposed to the elements, meaning it’s hard to predict the real fatty acid content of the seeds. Therefore, the safest course of action is to ground your own flax seeds.

Look for cold milled flax seeds

But let’s face it, we live in the real world and sometimes we need a little convenience in our life. And pre-ground flaxseed offers that convenience. If you do choose ground flaxseed, look for packaging that keeps out light. We like Spectrum Organic Ground Premium Flaxseed because not only is the product organic, but they use a cold milling process that finely slices the seed rather than crushing it. This helps preserve the nutrients. Once processed, they immediately package the ground seeds in a light-protective pouch then flush them with an inert gas and seal it airtight. This ensures optimal nutritive value and freshness and helps fight oxidation. Once you open the bag, be sure to store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.

How to Buy Flaxseed

Ok, so you know the Spectrum Organic brand is a great option, but if you can’t find the perfect brand, whole flax is the way to go.

Remember, the manner in which flax seeds are processed can greatly affect their nutritional composition. The processing of flaxseed is a complicated process involving multiple steps. During the process, heat is applied. Excessive heating can reduce the digestibility and protein content. Processing the seed into meal (or pre-ground flaxseed) can reduce the healthy fatty acids present 1.  For this reason, your best bet is to choose whole flaxseeds.

Many stores offer whole flax seeds the bulk bin. While it’s tempting to take advantage of the bulk savings, buying the seeds in individual dark bags is best. This ensures they have been protected from light and oxygen as much as possible. Once you have your whole flaxseeds, simply grind only what you need in a coffee grinder or high speed blender. If you do have leftover ground flaxseeds, immediately store it in a light-proof, air-tight container in the refrigerator or freezer. In the refrigerator, it should last about 2 weeks. In the freezer, it can last up to 3 months 4.

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The Bottom Line

Flaxseeds are great, but like buying fish oil, you have to be careful!

Flaxseeds have a lot to offer us in culinary uses and nutritional composition. While buying whole flaxseed and grinding right before use is ideal, there are also some great options on the market that find the balance between nutrition and convenience. It’s better to get some of the nutrients from pre-ground flaxseed than to skip all the nutrients by eating whole flaxseed.

If you enjoyed this post, check out our blog on plant-based milks.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick is a nationally recognized registered dietitian, best-selling author, TODAY Show contributor, and member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. She served as the lead dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio for 15 years.

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