What Is Flaxseed?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Flaxseed
A spoonful of flaxseed makes for good medicine

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Most of the time when you hear about flax seeds an image of granola-crunching hippies or ladies in yoga pants may come to mind, but these cultures aren't the only ones who have found goodness in the tiny brown seeds. Also known as linseed, the small but mighty food packs a wallop of fiber and other nutrients, something cultures all over the world for centuries have benefitted from.

What Is Flaxseed?

Simply put, flaxseeds are the seed of the flax plant. This plant has a long history both in the textile and food worlds. You may better know flax fabric by its common name, linen. Oil derived from the plant is called linseed oil, a type of vegetable oil that can be incorporated into cuisine as well. Now, for those tiny, smooth, brown or yellow and somewhat toothsome seeds, those get harvested and put into all sorts of dishes, from energy bars to salad toppings to fruit-filled crumbles.

The first known uses for flaxseed starts in Mediterranean and is found all the way to India, where the flax plant got cultivated for oils and fiber. The ancient Egyptians used it to make cloth and wrap mummies and the flaxseed oil helped preserve food. Then later the colonists picked it up and grew the plant in their home gardens. It's one of the oldest crops we know about. In fact, the Latin word for the plant is Linum usitatissimum, which means “very useful," something still promoted today.

Lately, flaxseed has been featured across health food publications and in plenty of good-for-you recipes, often accompanied by some running, cycling or rock climbing techniques. The health aspect isn't just a farce, these itty bitty bundles pack a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber. Now is the time to get in with this ancient food stuff and start putting it in everything.

What to Do With Flaxseed

Sprinkling the ingredient on your meal proves the easiest thing to do with flaxseed. Have a bowl of yogurt with fruit? Enhance each bite with a powerful seed. How about some roasted broccoli with olive oil and preserved lemon? Let the crunch of the flaxseed add a new texture. Heck, you can even add some of these seeds to the outside of bread, inside a pie, mixed in with chocolate chip cookies or layered on top of your strawberry-rhubarb crisp.

Aside from throwing a handful on top of a dish, flaxseeds also work great ground into food. A blender will help chop them up in a smoothie or pesto (though don't be surprised if a few seeds remain whole and get stuck to your teeth) or you can grind the stuff into a powder or nutty flour. Once it's in this form bake your flaxseeds into bread, swirl into oatmeal or add it into your meatballs. No matter which route you take, adding flaxseed gives any meal an extra layer of goodness.

Flaxseeds on oatmeal
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Flaxseed
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Flaxseed toast
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Flaxseed bread
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Golden flaxseeds
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What Does Flaxseed Taste Like?

The flavor of flaxseed isn't as prominent as the texture, but you will get a nutty essence with both the golden and brown seeds. The brown tend to have more of a toasty aspect to them, while the yellow prove a wee bit sweeter. The texture, however, can be a bit slimy when wet (think in a smoothie or on yogurt) and slightly chewy in dishes such as granola or in a salad. When you use ground flaxseed it can give a slightly nutty aspect to the dish, but it's not so strong as to overpower other flavors.

Flaxseed Recipes

Where to Buy Flaxseed

Any health food store like Sprouts, Whole Foods or Natural Grocers will definitely be stocking whole flaxseed on the shelf, and possibly ground flaxseed as well. Keep in mind, ground flaxseed has a short shelf life, so pay attention to when it expires. Sometimes you can even find the whole seeds at big box stores like Costco or Sam's Club. Flaxseed oil is harder to find, but most of the aforementioned health food shops carry it. Just remember to use it up and/or keep in the fridge since these products don't stay good forever, especially the flour and oil.

Storage

Of the three ways to keep flaxseed-oil, four and whole-the full seed proves the most shelf stable and can sit out at room temperature without issue. The flour and oil should be refrigerated in order to prevent spoiling, and need to get used up faster than the full seed. It's not a bad idea to put the whole flaxseeds in the refrigerator too, the coolness helps the seeds maintain freshness and allows them to last longer.

Nutrition and Benefits

As far as superfoods go, flaxseeds should definitely be put on your list. One tablespoon of these shiny seeds contains approximately 1 gram protein, 2 grams fiber, 1,600 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, iron, calcium and other helpful nutrients. The same measurement has some fat, about 2 grams, but only a sixth of that is saturated.

Flaxseed also carries the buzzword "antioxidant," which has been associated with the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. You really can't go wrong adding it to food, the worst that can happen is getting a seed or two stuck in your teeth.

Varieties

Only two types of flaxseed exist, golden and brown seeds. The golden present a subtle, slightly nutty flavor. As for the brown, you may pick up a similar taste, but much bolder. Golden flaxseeds, grown in North and South Dakota, contain a little less fat, but also less omega-3s. Brown appear in more stores and may be easier to find. Shoppers can also look for flaxseed oil and ground flaxseed, though keep in mind these two types have a shorter shelf life.

Myths

Hype around flaxseeds actually proves mainly true, they really are a superfood. That said, not everyone can eat flaxseeds as the food has been known to affect some medications and irritate certain gastrointestinal tracts. The seeds also contain phytoestrogens, a compound that mimics our body's estrogen, which can be a problem when over consumed or if someone has sensitivity to estrogen.

Flaxseeds also won't give you a daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids, despite containing a lot of the stuff. It's the way our bodies process seeds, they don't absorb the full amount from this vehicle as they do with other omega-3-rich foods such as fish. For the same reasons you shouldn't count on flax as a sole fiber source. Yes, there's a lot of fiber inside, but it doesn't process the same way in our bodies as a piece of fruit does.