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FLAX FACTS SEEDS MAY HAVE A POWERFUL IMPACT ON HEALTH.

Byline: Mariko Thompson Staff Writer

Jan King orders a salad without dressing and then drizzles it with flaxseed oil that she keeps in a tiny bottle in her purse. For the Chatsworth-based author and breast cancer survivor, every meal counts. So she adds flax to her diet every way she can.

``A person can only eat so much food at each meal, so we have to make smart choices about what we're putting into our bodies,'' says King, a humorist who writes for and about women. ``Instead of regular oil for salad dressings, I choose flaxseed oil for the health benefits. Instead of white bread, I use flaxseed bread.''

Heart healthy and loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants, flaxseed promises to follow soy to the supermarket shelves as the next powerhouse food. Already the versatile nutty-flavored seed has spawned grinder kits, cookbooks and pill supplements. Though far more prevalent in health-food stores, flaxseed bread mixes, cereals and other products can be spotted by the attuned eye in mainstream markets.

``There's obviously more soybean acres in the U.S., but flax does have that same status as far as health benefits,'' said Kaye Effertz, executive director of Ameriflax, a North Dakota-based organization representing flax producers. ``As we continue research on flaxseed, you'll see more and more of it out there. The key is good research.''

One of the world's oldest cultivated plants, flax's botanical name, Linum usitatissimum, means ``most useful plant.'' Not only was flaxseed a staple in the diets of both humans and livestock for thousands of years, the blue-flowering plant also served as a source of clothing and lamp oil. Today, the bulk of the U.S. flax crop goes toward industrial uses, including paper products, paints and linoleum. But its reputation as a potent tool against disease has led to a culinary resurgence in health circles.

According to the Flax Council of Canada, flax has long been touted for its medicinal properties. Hippocrates described it as a cure for abdominal ailments. Charlamagne was so convinced of the plant's health benefits that he required his subjects to consume certain quantities.

One traditional flax remedy has become a magnet for Leonor's Vegetarian Restaurant in North Hollywood. Owner Leonor Garcia credits her renowned flaxseed iced tea with improving digestion, hair and skin. Adapting a Bolivian recipe, Garcia boils flax, prunes, honey and cinnamon, then pours the concoction over ice.

``It's what we're known for,'' said Elizabeth Garcia, Leonor's daughter. ``Customers come in with jugs. We're thinking about bottling it and selling it.''

Breaking it down

Science is now testing the folk wisdom. Researchers are examining the links between flax and such diseases as breast cancer and diabetes. The potency is traced to three components: fiber, lignans and alpha-linolenic acid.

--Fiber: Fiber keeps the digestive tract regular and lowers cholesterol, which is important in preventing heart disease. Studies also have found that fiber affects blood glucose levels, helping to prevent or control type 2 diabetes.

The American Dietetic Association recommends between 20 and 35 grams of fiber a day. Flaxseed provides 2 to 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, according to Jane Reinhardt-Martin, an Illinois-based registered dietitian and author of ``Flax Your Way to Better Health.''

--Lignans: These plant compounds found in the hull act as as weak form of estrogen and appear to protect the body from hormonal cancers - including breast cancer. Lilian Thompson, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, has been testing whether flaxseed plays more than a preventive role. Research on animals has been promising, showing a reduction in existing tumors, she said.

Whether flaxseed proves to have the same beneficial effect on humans is another question, she said. For people in good health, Thompson recommends about one tablespoon a day. However, she advises breast cancer patients taking drugs such as tamoxifen to proceed with caution.

``We don't have enough data to conclude that the interaction with drugs is safe,'' she said.

--Alpha-linolenic acid: ALA is part of the omega-3 fatty acid pantheon known as the ``good'' kind of fat. Two other forms of omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are found primarily in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. Consuming foods with ALA reduces the risk of heart disease, eases inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and may help prevent cancer. One tablespoon of ground flax contains about 1,800 milligrams of omega-3, according to Reinhardt-Martin.

Though flax and fish oil contain different types of omega-3, Dr. Jay Udani recommends flax to patients who either can't or won't take fish oil.

``It's one of the cornerstones of my treatments,'' said Udani, director of the Integrative Health Program at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. ``All of my patients take some form of omega-3, whether it's fish oil or flaxseed.''

The omega-3 properties of flax have been promoted as a panacea for a range of other ailments, including menopause and psoriasis. Though Reinhardt-Martin has heard anecdotes from acquaintances and readers of her book, science hasn't yet supported those claims. Still, since most Americans don't eat enough omega-3, eating flax can't hurt - pending a doctor's approval for those taking medications, she said.

``Flax is one component of so many things people should be doing,'' Reinhardt-Martin said. ``It's not the magic bullet. It's not a cure-all.''

Not only should Americans consume more omega-3, they also should reduce their intake of omega-6 fatty acids found in meat, canola oil, safflower oil and soybean oil, said Bruce Watkins, director of the Enhancing Foods to Protect Health program at Purdue University. For the typical American, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is too high, ranging from 10-to-1 to 25-to-1. In Asian countries, where the incidence of cancer is much lower, the ratio is 2-to-1 or better, he said.

``We're finding the health benefits of omega-3, and we need to get them into the food supply,'' Watkins said. `'The whole area of omega-3 is starting to blossom.''

Daily grind

To receive the full health benefits of flaxseed, the hull must be broken. Slightly larger than a sesame seed, whole flaxseed comes in either a reddish brown or golden color. Reinhardt-Martin says a coffee grinder does a better job than a food processor or blender. Flax can also be bought ground. Ground flax keeps for up to four months and even longer if refrigerated in an airtight container.

``It shouldn't smell funky,'' Reinhardt-Martin said. ``Flax has a nutty flavor and smell. It should smell good.''

Reinhardt-Martin also warns that flaxseed oil, which must be refrigerated, has a relatively short shelf life of a few weeks. If the oil smells rancid, toss it. Flaxseed oil should only be used cold - it can't be heated like olive oil. Be sure to check the label closely in the store. Some flaxseed oils are marketed for pets to keep their coats shiny.

King, a flax convert who has been cancer-free for five years, says it's not hard to add between one and three tablespoons to the daily diet. Use a tablespoon of ground flaxseed when blending a breakfast smoothie. Sprinkle it on cereal. Bake it into muffins and breads. Create a salad dressing by mixing flaxseed oil with balsamic vinegar.

``You can get creative with it,'' King said. ``The possibilities are limitless.''

A sweet way to flaxseed

Now that you have the facts on flax, you may be thinking health and holidays don't have any business being in the same sentence. But it is possible to get the health benefits of flax without feeling like you're eating bird seed. We tested a recipe for Jane's Flaxseed Cookies. Our tasters loved the dense and hearty texture that came from the flax and the oatmeal. The chocolate chips and almonds added a touch of holiday decadence.

JANE'S FLAXSEED COOKIES

1 cup margarine

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup soy flour

1 cup oatmeal

1/2 cup ground flaxseed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup chopped almonds

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream margarine and sugars until mixture is light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, mix flour, soy flour, oatmeal, ground flaxseed, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Add almonds and chocolate chips. Mix until blended. Place a heaping teaspoon on a greased cookie sheet, leaving two inches between cookies. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Makes 50 cookies. Each cookie contains 1/2 teaspoon of flaxseed.

From ``Flax Your Way to Better Health'' by Jane Reinhardt-Martin. For more information, visit www.flaxrd.com.

- M.T.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) flax your way to health and healing with the powerhouse grain that packs a nutritional punch

(2 -- 5) no caption (Flax)

John McCoy/Staff Photographer

Box:

A sweet way to flaxseed (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Dec 23, 2002
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