Do you have 99 cents in your purse or pocket? That’s enough to buy a two-month supply of flaxseed; another few bucks will get you a month’s supply of shelled hempseed. For this pocket-change investment, you can take home two of the planet’s most powerful foods. Chances are you’ve never used either in your cooking, but there are good reasons to start.
Small but mighty flax
The attributes of flaxseed read like a nutritionist’s dream come true. It’s a potent food source of plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), which appear to provide protection against numerous ailments, including atherosclerosis, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, and some types of cancer. Flax also contains lignans, plant-based phytoestrogens believed to help protect against hormone-sensitive cancers by inhibiting enzymes involved in hormone metabolism, reducing estrogen availability, and interfering with tumor cell growth (Urology, 2004, vol. 63, no. 5).
Flax’s omega-3s may reduce cardiovascular disease risk by lowering the chance of blood clots, stroke, and cardiac arrhythmias, and by reducing total and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2002, vol. 87, no. 4; Nutrition Reviews, 2004, vol. 62, no. 1). Other data point to flax’s ability to relieve mild menopausal symptoms (Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2002, vol. 100, no. 3). Researchers also identify flax as a source of the powerful antioxidant secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG), which may help retard the development of diabetes (Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, 2001, vol. 138, no. 1). And because it’s got nearly 3 grams of fiber per ground tablespoon, adding flax to your diet even helps regulate bowels and prevent constipation.
One to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day can boost your health, says Lilian Thompson, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and a leading flaxseed researcher. Thompson cautions against eating more if you’re breast-feeding or trying to conceive, and advises pregnant women to avoid it. Breast cancer patients who are taking tamoxifen should also use caution. “Recent animal and test-tube studies show that flaxseed does not interfere with tamoxifen,” she notes, “but this has yet to be demonstrated in human studies.”
Although kin to marijuana, hemp varieties grown in Canada and Europe for food and fiber contain only trace amounts of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive substance; hemp food products harbor insignificant levels. In September 2004, after years of legal wrangling, the Drug Enforcement Administration finally cleared hemp for use in U.S. food production.
What makes this seed worth eating? For starters, it contains all of the essential amino acids in a balanced ratio, making it a high-quality protein source. A 1-ounce serving of shelled seeds provides 6 percent to 50 percent of the daily value (DV) of several nutrients, including iron, magnesium, and B vitamins. Hemp contains omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids in a beneficial ratio of about 3 to 1, plus two special EFAs: gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), believed to relieve menstrual breast pain (Internal Medicine News, 2001, vol. 34, no. 9), and stearidonic acid (SDA), a highly effective omega-3, which is rarely found in plant oils. “The joint presence of GLA and SDA makes hemp very attractive,” says Gero Leson, PhD, scientific adviser to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance. “Some [food oils] have one or the other, but [only hemp] offers both of these super-omega fatty acids in relevant quantities.”
Hempseed’s versatility makes it an easy addition to foods. “You can use it in almost anything where you would use other nuts,” except when roasting or frying, Leson says. Hemp oil is more delicate and oxidizes rapidly when heated. “You can’t fry with it,” he says. “It’s the same with flax oil; [they’re both] very sensitive to heat above 300 degrees or so. So you use [the oils] for warm or cold dishes, in spreads, dressings, and soups.” About a tablespoon of hemp oil or an ounce of hempseed daily provides a significant and beneficial dose of omega-3s, minerals, and vitamins, he says.
Buying, storing, and using
Look for whole flax in the bulk section of natural foods stores. Regular flax looks like dark brown, tiny seeds; golden flax is lighter in color. Store in a dark, dry cabinet for up to one year. Because whole flaxseeds just pass through your system, always grind seeds well before eating. Refrigerate or freeze ground flax in an airtight container and use within two months. Preground flaxseed, called flax meal, is sold in the baking section of natural groceries. Flax oil makes a convenient and tasty omega-3 source, though it lacks fiber and contains fewer phytoestrogen lignans than seeds. Also look for flax-added products, such as cereals, breads, crackers, and energy bars.
You’ll find hemp sold as oil, shelled seed, ground flour, protein powder, and nut butter, as well as added to tortilla chips, waffles, protein bars, and more. There’s no need to grind hempseed; simply use as is, or toast to enhance its nutty flavor. Refrigerate hemp products after they’re opened, and use within eight weeks.