Flax is a slender plant with pretty blue flowers that has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its long, silky fibers are used to spin linen thread, and its seeds are pressed for their high oil content.
In the past, the inedible linseed oil made from flax was all used for things like wood finishing products. The solid residue was and still is used as a nourishing feed for cattle.
It’s only recently that researchers have discovered that flax seeds make an invaluable food for humans, too. Naturally gluten-free flax seeds come in several colors — all with the same great nutritional profile — but brown and golden are the most commonly available in our markets.
The flax meal that is becoming so popular, particularly in gluten-free recipes, is usually ground from brown flax seeds and is tan. A nutritional powerhouse, antioxidant-rich flax seeds contain an amazing amount of dietary fiber, protein, micronutrients and, very importantly, omega-3 fatty acids, a vital element in controlling inflammation.
Ongoing research reveals that flax seeds may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, especially in women, and also aid in the control of diabetes by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. Last but not least, these seeds are very low in carbohydrates, which is worth knowing if you are trying to limit your intake of starches.
Healthful flax seeds can play a major role in baking gluten-free breads with character, flavor, and a springy, light texture. Head for the kitchen with a supply of the whole seeds or ready-ground flax meal, and release your inner artisan baker. You don’t have to tell anyone how easy it was to produce such stellar breads and muffins.
Potential downsides to ingesting flax
Current research suggests overwhelming benefits, but flax does contain a lot of soluble fiber.
It’s easy to be seduced by the aroma, soft texture and whole-grain flavor of “high flax” bakery items, but it’s best to start with eating a small amount and increase your intake little by little. Over-indulgence can have a laxative effect, and conversely, if you don’t drink a lot of fluids the opposite could be a problem.
Some medical researchers suggest that flax should be avoided by pregnant women and women taking estrogen, as it contains a natural plant version of estrogen. As always, if in any doubt, consult your physician and nutritionist for recommendations in your particular case.
Flax meal vs. flax seeds
Flax meal and whole flax seeds are available at natural foods stores and some supermarkets. Store flax meal — home ground or an opened pre-ground package — in the freezer, where it will keep for at least three months. Due to the high oil content, ground flax seeds can quickly turn rancid and develop a strong, unpleasant flavor if stored in a kitchen cupboard.
Whole flax seeds, on the other hand, cost less than packaged brown or golden flax meal and will keep for about a year at cool room temperature. You can grind flax seeds into flax meal in just a few seconds using a clean electric coffee mill or a blender, which will give you the freshest and most flavorful results. A half-cup of flax seeds yields three-quarters of a cup of flax meal.
Recipes that use flax seeds or meal
Resources for flax seeds and meal
- Bob’s Red Mill: bobsredmill.com
- King Arthur Flour: kingarthurflour.com
- Arrowhead Mills: arrowheadmills.com
The author of more than a dozen cookbooks, Food Editor Jackie Mallorca’s latest titles include The Wheat-Free Cook and Gluten-Free Italian. For more information and recipes, visit her website at GlutenFreeExpert.com