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All the world is nuts about

    What's in The Nut Gourmet

The Nutty Gourmet

Vegetarians in Paradise

On the Highest Perch

Flax--the Plant with a Thousand Uses

Flax at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Folklore/Oddities Medical Benefits
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation Recipe

If one were to conjure up an ideal, imaginary plant that could provide food, offer healing, and produce many useful products, one could not improve on the multiplicity of the flax plant.

John uses flax oil to prevent his garden pruners from rusting. Mrs. Thompson makes flaxseed tea to relieve her constipation. Sally considers flaxseed oil best for making hand cream. Mark sprinkles flaxseeds on his cereal to lower his cholesterol. Dr. Anthony makes a poultice from flaxseeds to heal his patient's boil. The ABC Linen Company buys linen thread to weave linen cloth. Heinz uses linseeds to make bread from his German mother's recipe. Could all these products be derived from just one plant? Indeed they can!

Actually, the few applications for flax mentioned above are just that--only a few. Scientists and product manufacturers are still discovering new ways to use the flax plant, an unassuming herb whose attractive blue flowers do not even bloom for an entire day.

Archeological remains indicate that several plants were first cultivated about the same time in Mesopotamia before traveling southward to Egypt. These plants included flax, emmer wheat, barley, einkorn wheat, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and bitter vetch.

In establishing an acquaintance with flaxseeds, one cannot ignore its strong connection to the linen fibers derived from the plant. Linen was used to wrap the mummies of ancient Egypt dating back at least 5,000 BCE. Flax

The Babylonians may have been the earliest people to cultivate flax as a food source. By 2,000 BCE irrigation ditches were formed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of the Fertile Crescent to insure a good water supply for the fields of flax.

In his epic poem The Iliad (8th century BCE) Homer writes that linen was used for cord and sail-cloth, an indication that the Greeks were cultivating flax plants and were, no doubt, consuming the seeds as well.

Hippocrates (460 to 377 BCE), a Greek physician often called the "Father of Medicine," recognized the value of flax in relieving numerous intestinal disorders. When he prescribed flax, his patients benefited from its healing properties.

Upon conquering Gaul in 57 BCE, the Romans noticed the extensive fields of flax growing there as well as the attractive, high quality linen woven in the region. Wherever flax was grown for its linen, one can speculate the seeds of the plant were put to use, either as food, medicine, or both.

Fine linen is mentioned several times in the Old Testament:

Joseph wore garments of linen.
One of the ten plagues, hail, was said to destroy the flax fields.
Linen was the fabric used in garments worn by Jewish High Priests.
The curtains of the tabernacle were woven of linen.
Spinning linen was an art attributed to the Caananites.
Linen was also used for lamp wicks, mentioned in Isaiah.
The New Testament mentions that the Savior wore linen garments when Joseph of Arimathaea laid Him in his tomb.

Charlemagne, the 8th century King of France, regarded flax so highly for its health benefits he made detailed entries in his medical law books that pertained to the cultivation and use of flax for food and medicine. He ordered his subjects to consume flax to maintain good health and prevent disease.

Flaxseeds were grown in India for centuries and were consumed as a food grain. Mahatma Ghandi once said, "Whenever flaxseeds become a regular food item among the people, there will be better health."

By the 16th century flax cultivation for linen production was a burgeoning industry that brought wealth to local Flemish farmers. During this century flaxseeds were consumed as a common food source throughout Europe. Germans, especially, were incorporating them into a variety of whole-grain breads, a practice their bakers have turned into a fine craft even today.

Raw, unrefined, food grade flaxseed oil was introduced into the U..S. by Nature's Distributors, Inc., a company that began looking into research by German scientist, Dr. Johanna Budwig in 1986. The scientist began her work in the mid 1950's and discovered that flaxseeds play an important role in the function of all the body's processes from normalizing blood pressure to boosting the immune system.

Today, flax, along with spelt and sunflowers, is grown in the northern areas of Europe as an alternative crop. Because the area suffers from overproduction of pork, butter, and wine, farmers have had to cut back on production and even destroy some of their harvests. The result is that flaxseeds, called linseeds in Europe, have become popular among health conscious Europeans and are readily available in health food stores

Flax Receives its Name
The Latin name for the flax plant is linum , derived from the Greek linon. The plant's common name, flax, is Middle English, originally from the Old English fleax, and related to the German flachs that means to plait, or interweave, such as in braiding. The plaiting or weaving connection grew out of the linen fibers taken from the flax plant and spun into thread.

Flaxseed Cuisine
In Russia during medieval and post medieval times, it was common to combine flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds with peas during religious fasts. During the 17th century, the Tsar's table included dishes prepared with flaxseed oil.

The ancient Greeks made nourishing, high-fiber bread by combining flaxseeds with corn.

Flax Oil In the Middle East flaxseed oil provided the base for Ful Medames, a traditional dish consisting of cooked fava beans seasoned with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt that remains a favorite today.

The Germans prepare a linseed bread called Leinsamenbrot, a heavy, dense bread containing whole flaxseeds, mainly as a remedy for constipation. However, its whole-grain composition and rich flavor make the bread a tasty health food.

Many Uses of Flax Seeds and Flaxseed Oil
Linseed oil has long been a highly favored oil applied to fine furniture. Rubbing each piece with linseed oil always creates a unique finish on quality teak furniture made famous by the attractive styling of Danish furniture designers. Customers were advised to purchase linseed oil at the hardware store and polish the teakwood with it about once or twice a year.

Customary among farmers is the practice of coating their farm tools and implements with flaxseed oil to prevent rust. The oil dries on the implements and forms a hard seal that does not evaporate or dissipate.

While most of us are aware that the earliest writing papers were made of parchment and papyrus, few have knowledge that about 750 CE people of Samarkand and Uzbekistan were making paper of linen rags that originated with the fibers of the flax plant. The process passed through many lands and cultures until it reached paper manufacturers in l8th century Europe.

Because linseed oil readily absorbs oxygen when exposed to air, the oil is incorporated as a drying agent in the manufacture of house paints as well as artists oils. The linseed oil used to polish furniture and to provide a drying medium in paints is raw, unrefined oil. What was unknown in the U.S. is that linseed oil is actually flaxseed oil.

After the oil is pressed from the flaxseeds, the remaining matter, a gummy, mucilaginous material called oil cake, is sold to farmers who purchase it for cattle feed as well as for manure.

A mixture of honey and flaxseed oil was used as a remedy for removing unwanted spots on the face.

People today can make their own hair-setting gel by boiling flaxseed in water to extract its mucilaginous contents. The flaxseeds are then strained off and the liquid cooled to a gel consistency before it is ready to use.

Many European farmers regularly feed their animals with flaxseeds to prevent as well as treat diseases. Farmers also observed that their animals had healthier skin and coats when flaxseeds were part of their regular diet.

Veterinarians who treat farm animals use flax oil as a purgative for horses and sheep.

Today linseed oil is incorporated as an emollient in making soap and as a drying agent in manufacturing printer's ink, artists paints, and house paints. The linseed oil is also used in the commercial production of liniments for burns and joint pain.

Medical Benefits
Flaxseeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, with insoluble fiber in the form of cellulose and lignin comprising the larger proportion. The National Cancer Institute recognized fiber to be important in the prevention of various cancers, including colon cancer.

Because ancient herbalists recognized that the mucilaginous qualities of flaxseeds offered relief to sufferers of chronic constipation, they recommended ingesting a tea made of ground flaxseeds. Modern day herbalists recognize the wisdom of the ancients and continue to offer the flaxseed remedy to their patients.

Flaxseed oil contains Omega-3 alpha linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid necessary for regulating a host of bodily functions. Because the human body does not manufacture the essential Omega-3 fatty acid, people must consume it from food sources. Flax is one of the few plant foods that contains the alpha linolenic acid; others include walnuts, soybeans, and canola oil.

The Omega-3 in flax is similar to that in fish but not identical. Some claim Omega-3 from flax may not have the same cardiac benefit as fish oil, but that view is controversial. Fish oils contain two fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) that flaxseed oil does not contain. However, the body can manufacture the EPA and DHA fatty acids from flaxseed oil when other oils are eliminated from the diet, suggesting that flaxseed oil can have the same benefit as fish oil.

Just as amino acids are the building blocks of protein, essential fatty acids such as Omega-3 fats, are the building blocks of prostaglandins, hormonelike substances present in both male and female reproductive glands. The prostaglandins may also aid in regulating blood pressure.

The University of Toronto conducted a study using flaxseeds and found them successful in lowering cholesterol as well as inhibiting the growth of new cancer cells. At a 1995 Toronto meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, a scientist and member of the study team announced that the lignans in flaxseeds may be responsible for reducing the tumor growth in rats. Flaxseeds contain the highest concentration of lignans found in any food.

Lignans are plant estrogens, also called phytoestrogens, that may aid in maintaining strong bones, preventing the growth of many cancerous tumors, and inhibiting the formation of gallstones. These plant estrogens may have antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties. Lignins are fibers that may bind to testosterone, the male hormone, and inhibit the growth of prostate tumors.

An item reported in the British Journal of Nutrition during a four-week study indicated that flax oil was beneficial in helping to regulate blood glucose levels in diabetics.

Because most Americans consume highly processed refined oils, many are deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids that may provide numerous health benefits to people with high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, angina, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and eczema, and cancer. Flaxseeds, an unrefined food, provide the richest source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Flaxseeds are attributed with the ability to boost the immune system, increase vitamin D levels, and prevent loss of calcium and magnesium.

The seeds may be beneficial in alleviating stomach acidity and heartburn. Since flaxseeds are very alkaline, frequent consumption of flaxseed meal can help regulate the stomach's acid-alkaline balance.

Additional benefits of flax are derived from compounds that are converted into lignans by bacteria in the gut. Some women have derived relief of menopausal hot flashes when using flax on a daily basis.

A Duke University Medical Center study published in the July 2001 issue of Urology included 25 men who were awaiting surgery to remove their prostates. Their low-fat diet was supplemented daily with 3 tablespoons of flaxseed meal that they sprinkled on their cereals, salads, yoghurt, applesauce, or juice. After 34 days the men showed lower cholesterol levels, decreased testosterone levels, and fewer tumor cells compared to the control group. Their PSA levels also fell.

Whole flaxseeds may pass through body undigested because they do not break down easily. They must be thoroughly chewed or ground into a meal to aid digestion.

Alpha lipoic acid, a component in flaxseeds, is a powerful antioxidant that protects against free radical damage of both water and fat-soluble nature. Flaxseeds also protect DNA and aid in recycling vitamins C and E. These tiny miracle seeds may even have anti-aging benefits.

Linseed meal is used for poultices, sometimes in combination with mustard seeds at the site of ulcerated wounds to relieve irritation and to discharge pus. Herbalists found it helpful in treating boils and abscesses. To prepare a poultice, put three tablespoons of flaxseeds into the center of an 8-inch (20 cm) square or rectangular cloth. Gather up the ends and twist or tie to enclose the seeds. Lower seed portion of the poultice bag into boiling water to moisten. Wring out excess water. Apply the poultice to the problem area and cover it with a towel to retain the heat. Leave the poultice in place until it cools, then remove.

Flaxseeds are helpful in relieving the discomfort of colds and coughs. Some women have also found that a tea made of flaxseeds alleviates irritation of the urinary tract.

To relieve the pain of burns and scalds, combine flaxseed oil with lime-water and apply to the wound.

Flaxseed oil and ground flaxseeds are also used as a laxative. The seeds, whether ground or whole, tend to soak up large quantities of water and form a mucilaginous bulk that acts as a digestive aid that eases constipation.

Making Flax Oil
A special, carefully controlled expeller process that does not exceed temperatures of 96 F (36 C) in order to prevent damage produces truly high quality flax oil. Quality flax oil is easily recognized by its lack of odor and its delicate, almost flavorless taste. Some describe the taste of flaxseed oil as slightly nutty.

The term expeller pressed involves a mechanical process of pressing oil from the flaxseeds. Though product labels may say cold pressed, temperatures produced by this process that are not carefully controlled can reach as high as 200 F (93 C), even though no external heat source is used.

Higher temperatures produce more oil though it is of a lesser quality because flax oil is a highly polyunsaturated oil and can easily be damaged by heat, light, and exposure to air. In its damaged state, flax oil becomes tainted with toxic molecules called lipid peroxides that are harmful to the body. The telltale signs are a bitter taste and rancid odor.

During the Middle Ages, the flax flowers were believed to be a protection against sorcery.

The Bohemians, who occupied the area that is now Prague, had a belief that centered on seven-year-old children. Families brought their children to dance among the flax fields because their faith led them to believe this rite would make the children beautiful. The ritual also recognized that the entire field was under the protection of a Teuton mythological goddess named Hulda, who is said to have passed on her art of growing, spinning, and weaving the flax to mortals.

Flax, Linum usitatissimum, is an annual herb grown for two distinct purposes: producing linen fibers and harvesting the seeds.

Flax cultivated for its seeds requires a rich soil, similar to soil prepared for growing wheat. The plant is rather particular about its soil. Its preferences are deep, moist loam, rich in vegetable matter, not too loose, not too hard like clay, and neither sandy nor rocky. If manure is added to the soil, it must be well aged.

Enjoying a warm moist climate, flax will grow in all temperate and tropical regions. All of man's efforts to cultivate flax has not prevented it from escaping into a semi-wild state in all the regions where it is grown.

Flax Flaxseeds are planted at the end of March. By the end of May, attractive blossoms appear, making a flax field a breathtaking sight, but only for a few hours. The flowers are mostly blue, with some plants producing white, pink, or violet blossoms. The blooms are extremely delicate and perish quickly. Pollination by bees is a necessity for flax to set seed capsules.

The long, hollow and woody stems vary from 2 to 4 feet (60 to 120 cm). Round seedpods form at the top of the stem and contain about 10 seeds each that measure about 1/8-inch (.5 cm) in length. The tough, shiny seeds are brown, flat, and pointed at one end and contain about 35% to 45% of the valuable flax oil known for its health benefits.

The flax cultivated for its linen is known for its two varieties: blue-flowered and white flowered. The white-flowered variety produces more seeds and a coarser fiber than its blue rival. Flax grown for its seeds produces poor linen fibers. Today, flax is mostly grown in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Eastern Europe with minor growth in France and Great Britain where it is referred to as linseed. In North America flax is grown mainly for human consumption rather than for its linen fibers.

Nutritional Information
With all its outstanding Omega-3 essential fatty acid properties, flaxseed oil also contains 120 calories for 1 tablespoon that amounts to 14 grams of fat, 1 gram saturated.

Whole flaxseeds have 59 calories per tablespoon and 4.1 gram of fat, .4 saturated. The whole seeds are highly nutritious with that same tablespoon offering 2 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber.

Surprisingly, 1 tablespoon of the little flaxseeds offer a full range of B vitamins with 33.4 mcg of folic acid. Additionally, that tablespoon contains 23.9 mg of calcium, 43.4 mg of magnesium, 82 mg of potassium, and trace amounts of iron and zinc.

Flaxseeds contain linolenic acid (the Omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (the Omega-6 fatty acid), both essential to human health. Because humans are unable to manufacture these essential fats, they must supply these fats in their regular diets to assist in the function of the nervous system, the brain, sexual organs, and the largest organ, the skin.

Buy only food grade flaxseed oil. Never purchase artist's linseed oil to use as a human food source.

Always look for this product in the refrigerated section of a reputable health food store. When selecting flax oil, look for oil made from organic flaxseeds to avoid the possibility of pesticides and herbicides that may be present in non-organic flaxseeds.

Check the expiration date on the bottle to make sure it is fresh. Look for the words expeller pressed to avoid those that are heat pressed.

Choose flaxseed oil in liquid form rather than in capsules. The flax oil contained in capsules can become rancid, but the gel caps prevent the buyer from detecting rancidity.

Flaxseed oil is highly perishable when exposed to heat, light, and air. Quality flaxseed oil is always sold in dark, opaque plastic bottles. Some manufacturers are using a natural rosemary antioxidant to make flax oil more shelf stable.

As soon as you bring the flaxseed oil home, put it in the refrigerator. Purchase the oil in small quantities and use it up within a month or two. Flax oil can even become rancid in the refrigerator when kept for long periods.

Raw is the only way to consume flax oil. Do not use flax oil for cooking. When polyunsaturated oils such as flaxseed oil are subjected to high heat, their chemical make-up is converted to unhealthful lipid peroxides.

Whole flaxseeds do not break down in the digestive system. If you consume them whole, chew them thoroughly. Even then, many may not have broken down and will pass through the digestive system without being absorbed. Still, they offer the benefits of fiber by cleansing the intestinal tract. Store flaxseed meal in the refrigerator.

Be sure to drink plenty of water when consuming whole flaxseeds or the flaxseed meal because flax tends to absorb large quantities of liquid during the digestion process.

Flaxseed flour, purchased in a health food store, can be combined with wheat flour for baking.

Whole flaxseeds can easily be ground into meal by putting small batches into a small electric coffee grinder and processing very briefly, only a second or two.

Enjoy flaxseed meal by sprinkling a heaping tablespoon on cereals and salads.

Flaxseed meal will enhance almost any food, whether it's a tofu scramble, a stir fry dish, or a casserole by adding it at the end of the cooking to avoid excess exposure to heat.

When preparing homemade salad dressing, use flax oil in place of other oils.

Use flax oil in place of other oils in dips, spreads, and bean dishes such as hummos.

Sprinkle whole flaxseeds or the meal as a garnish for soups, salads, entrees, dips, sandwiches, and pasta dishes.

To replace an egg in a recipe, soak 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds in 1/3 cup (80 ml) of water until it becomes gelatinous, then strain off the seeds. As an alternative, combine the same quantities of flaxseeds and water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture reaches the consistency of a raw egg white. Strain off the seeds.

An excellent way to derive benefit from flax oil is to include it in a robust, tangy salad dressing.


1 1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. dry mustard
4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 C. (120 ml) flax oil
1/2 C. (120 ml) balsamic vinegar
1/4 C. (60 ml) lemon juice
1/4 C. (60 ml) water

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake well. Keep refrigerated and shake well before each use. Use within 2 weeks. Makes 1 3/4 cups (415 ml).

For a creamier alternative, combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend on high speed until well combined and smooth. Transfer to a bottle.

For Aunt Nettie's special recipe for flaxseed tea click here.

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