Cooking with Flax -- Elaine Magee, RD -- 03/11/03

By Elaine Magee
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Looking to add some extra nutrition to the foods you love? Dietitian and The Flax Cookbook author Elaine Magee joined us to discuss the latest scientific information about the health benefits of flax and to share tips on adding flax to your diet.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello Elaine. Welcome back to WebMD Live. First off -- why flaxseed?

Magee: When I was writing my Tell Me What To Eat series of books, whether I was writing about type 2 diabetes or menopause, or breast cancer, the subject of flaxseed would come up. And I finally felt that there was enough scientific evidence to support writing a cookbook about it. And my flax cookbook is, I believe, the first cookbook on ground flaxseed.

Moderator: Explain the omega-3 connection.

Magee: There are three particularly great things about flaxseed.

  • It's the best plant source of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • It contains both types of fiber -- about 3 grams per tablespoon.
  • It is one of the top plant sources of the phytoestrogen called lignans.

In terms of the omega-3s, from what we can see in the research, we still need to eat our fish because those types of omega-3s are helpful, but we still need to eat plant omega-3s because they help us through different mechanisms than the fish omegas.

Moderator: What are those health benefits?

Magee:

  • Possible cancer prevention and reduction of tumor growth in breast, prostate and colon cancer.
  • Reduced risk of heart disease -- studies suggest that flax lowers the risk of blood-cot and strokes and cardiac arrhythmia, along with lowering total and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and even blood pressure.
  • Better regulation of bowel functions and prevention of constipation.
  • Possible reduction of blood-glucose response to carbohydrates.
  • Possible benefits in many hyper-stimulated immune system diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Relief of breast pain related to a woman's hormone cycle.

Moderator: What is the best way to get the benefits of flax?

Magee: Definitely, from what I've seen in the research, ground flaxseed is ideal. With whole flaxseed, without being ground, you're less likely to digest it fully and get all the good stuff. And with the flaxseed oil, you're literally only getting the omega-3s, not the fiber, not lignans.

Moderator: How much should you have daily?

Magee: Generally, one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day is considered safe and effective for most people. A small number of people have an allergic reaction and that's why when you're just starting to add it to your diet, it is good to start with just half a teaspoon to see if you have an allergic reaction. It's a very small number, but it does happen.

Member: How long have you been using flaxseed in your diet?

Magee: I used it off and on for a year, twice a week. Then when I started writing the book, I purposely went to flaxseed once a day. I happened to have a cholesterol test right before I wrote the book, so I took my blood test after three months of eating flax every day and my total cholesterol went down 15 points and my LDLs went down eight and my blood pressure went down five points, just by going from twice a week to once a day. I also have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and it seems to help me with my IBS.

Moderator: Are there any people who should not jump on the flax bandwagon?

Magee: Lillian Thompson, who's a leading flax researcher in Canada, includes pregnant women and breast cancer patients on tamoxifen or other breast cancer drugs as the people who should not eat flax until more studies on humans are done. Apparently, it's the lignans that antagonize the action of tamoxifen. What this tells me is that flax is potentially powerful. If it can potentially antagonize a drug, this is powerful. I personally think it's the most powerful plant food on the planet.

Moderator: What about women who are breastfeeding?

Magee: That's a good question, but one that I can't answer at this time. They're still looking into it. In the meantime, I think breastfeeding women should ask their doctors. But I think the amount of one tablespoon a day is probably safe and effective for women who are breast-feeding. But I can say that omega-3s are important in general for developing fetuses and babies.

Member: Why can't pregnant women have it?

Magee: I think the researchers are being cautious until more human studies are done. I, personally, would have no problem taking a tablespoon of flaxseed if I were pregnant, but I think the researchers have to be cautious until more studies are done. I believe it's the lignans that are making them cautious at this point. But again, when I question the researcher about the cautions, I say what is a large amount? Most of the caution researchers have is about large amounts, but I when I question about a tablespoon they agree it's not a large amount and it's probably safe, but they won't know for sure until they've done further studies.

Moderator: There are different types of flaxseed. Why choose one over the other? How do you store it? Is it OK to get it already ground?

Magee: There's basically regular flax and golden flax. And golden flax, as you might guess, is golden. It's literally a light yellow color and it's mainly grown in the Dakota states. The regular flax is darker in color, sort of a light brown, and it's mostly grown in Canada. They're both supposed to have, generally, the same amounts of nutritional attributes. So, to me, the benefit to regular flax is it's cheaper, whereas the golden is benefited by light color and it is easier to hide in food. I must say, if you are making a mango smoothie, you are going to have these brown specks if you add flaxseed, and some aren't going to like that as well. I generally use the regular because that's what's easy to get at my supermarket.

Member: Is it best to refrigerate or freeze flaxseed?

Magee: I personally think the best way to store it is in your freezer. Grind it and put it in your freezer. It will keep that way for nine months, no sweat. Then you just take a tablespoon from the freezer and add it to whatever you're cooking. If you buy it whole, then you grind it yourself in large batches and keep it in the freezer in a Ziplock bag.

Member: Is OK to buy it already ground?

Magee: Yes, absolutely. It's always nice to see a date on the package or to buy it from a store that goes through it quickly. And once you buy it ground, put it directly in your freezer. It's going to be a little more expensive to buy already ground, like $3.80 a pound ground, compared to $1.00 per pound, whole. But that's still a great deal.

Member: What is the best way to grind the flaxseed?

Magee: There are actually flaxseed grinders available over the Internet, but I use an electric coffee grinder. If I can find it ground, that's what I tend to buy. It's much more convenient. What people need to know is that once you grind the seed, it becomes perishable. If it's whole, it will keep in a cool, dark place for months and months. Once we grind it, we expose the omega-3 oil to air and light; before that the shell is protecting the nutrients. By putting it in the freezer we are suspending that process, keeping it from interacting with air and light.

Member: What is the caloric value of the tablespoon of ground flax I add to my breakfast cereal each morning?

Magee: It changes based on which brand you buy. In the book, I took the average amount of calories and nutrients. So one tablespoon is equal to:

  • 40 calories
  • 1.6 grams of protein
  • 2.8 grams of carbohydrate
  • 2.8 grams of fat,
  • .3 grams saturated fat
  • .6 grams mono-unsaturated fat
  • 1.8 grams of poly-unsaturated fat--that's where your omega-3s will be
  • About 2 1/2 to 3 grams of fiber
  • 3 milligrams of sodium

Member: Hi Elaine, I would like to know if flaxseed can interact with any vitamins or prescription drugs? Also can you consume too much of this?

Magee: Yes, you can consume too much, I think, because it is so powerful that you actually can get too many lignans and omega-3s. Some of the studies they've done use a quarter-cup per day. I would think that's as high as you would want to go. And I think the dose, again, that is really safe and effective for most people is one to two tablespoons per day. It's possible it might interact with medication. I would check with your pharmacist, one who knows whether or not the medication you're taking is vulnerable to that.

Member: I've heard that flax thins your blood, is this true?

Magee: It does reduce risk of stroke and one of the ways it's doing that is probably by making it less sticky. Yes, it's quite possible that it does have blood-thinning properties, and it also reduces blood pressure. I believe they're also looking into whether or not it makes your arteries more flexible, which is a good thing.

Member: Can you literally add it to anything you're cooking?

Magee: It really depends on how tough your crowd is because if you're trying to hide it so people can't tell its in there, it's better to add it to dark-colored, saucy dishes such as chicken enchiladas, chili, beef stew, etc, and it's going to be more obvious in light-colored dishes like macaroni and cheese.

In the cookbook, I used lots of different techniques to add the flax. There are chapters on muffins and bread, appetizer recipes, entrees, desserts, smoothies. The sky's the limit. You can add flaxseed in your batter in place of some flour; you can sprinkle it as a topping, stir it into smoothie or a cup of soup, whatever works. I, personally, find myself adding it to my lunch, generally, and if I forget to add it by the end of the day I store it in some orange juice and drink it down quickly.

Moderator: I've added it to lasagna, beef stew, batter for fish and chips, cereal, yogurt, toppings for casseroles; no one in my family is any the wiser. It's very easy to add to any baked goods. But how much flour can you replace with flaxseed meal?

Magee: I would replace an eighth of a cup of ground flax per cup of flour called for in the recipe. And you can play with that. I have high standards and am trying to make sure the average person likes the recipe. So I have to make sure that almost everyone will love it, but if people are more motivated they can play with the amounts. But, I caution you, because you can add too much flaxseed to baked recipes and it won't come out the same. It loses its ability to brown and rise if you add too much.

The other thing I like about the cookbook is almost every recipe gives you a tablespoon of ground flax per serving. I really tried to make it so that if you had a recipe a day from the book, or a tip a day from the book, you would get your daily dose of flax.

Member: I add flaxseed to cole slaw. Adds the fiber and makes it taste great!

Member: I was under the impression that cooking the flaxseed destroyed some of its powerful properties, especially the omega-3s

Magee: No. Absolutely not. And it's virtually unscathed by cooking. It's pretty hard to destroy oil through heat. It's mostly destroyed by interacting with oxygen.

Member: Is flaxseed OK for children or teenagers?

Magee: I haven't seen anything specifically telling me that it isn't OK in the reasonable amounts we've talked about. You would want to make sure they don't have an allergic reaction, and would stick to the smaller, more reasonable amount of no more than a tablespoon. Some researchers do urge that certain groups, including children, young adults, and women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to conceive be cautious about consuming "large" amounts of flax. Three to five tablespoons a day is considered a "large" amount.

Member: I buy flaxseed at a hay and feed store for my horse. It is known to be great for their coats. I just put a couple of handfuls in his grain, and then crunch on a handful myself. It tastes great, kind of like sesame seeds; is it OK to eat it in this "raw" form?

Magee: I don't know the quality of the flaxseed that you're feeding the horse and whether or not it's OK for humans. But raw is OK if you throw it into smoothies or whatever. But it brings up an interesting point that we sometimes feed our animals better than ourselves by adding flaxseed to dog treats and horse meal to improve their health.

Also, they have started feeding flaxseed into the meal of chickens to produce higher omega-3 eggs. And really this is exactly what we're doing when we feed ourselves a better omega-3 diet. We are making our body tissues higher in omega-3. So across the country you will start seeing higher omega-3 eggs produced because they are feeding chickens flaxseed.

Member: Are flaxseed oil tablets as effective as ground flaxseed (for health benefits)?

Magee: I would not suggest flaxseed oil tablets because I only feel good about flaxseed as a whole food, in the way that nature made it. And there's still some question about high amounts in tablets form increasing the risks of certain things, such as prostate cancer. Unless you have a specific medical condition in which a doctor has prescribed it, I think you are better off health-wise and wallet-wise with the ground flax.

Member: I grind my own flaxseed and recently heard that I should be toasting it first. Is this true and is there a nutritional difference?

Magee: Not that I know of. Maybe some feel the toasting brings out flavors. I like the way it tastes right from the grinder. It has a pleasant nutty flavor. Toasting isn't going to bother it too much, so if it's something you like to do, go for it.

Moderator: What is your favorite recipe from your new flax cookbook?

Magee: I love the cinnamon swirl bread and you'll never know the flaxseed is in the filling. My favorite smoothie is stawberry-banana-fana. The savory stuffed mushrooms are to die for. Crab cakes with quick jalapeno mayonnaise and the cajun mini-meatloafs are good too. For dessert, I love the rocky road brownies Hopefully you can find the flax cookbook at your local bookstore; call ahead to see if they have it for you, or go to www.barnesandnoble.com.

Moderator: I love the "Any Fruit Flax Crisp."

Member: I have your flax cookbook and the recipes are easy to make. I love it.

Moderator: The great thing is that you use real people-food that tastes good.

Magee: I tried to make real recipes for real people.

Moderator: Elaine, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Magee: We do a flaxseed Friday every other week on the Healthy Cooking Special Needs message board on WebMD. You'll become a flaxseed believer just like so many others. It's amazing more people haven't heard of it, given all it can do for us.

Moderator: We are out of time. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your great questions. Our thanks to Elaine Magee, and thank you members for joining us today.

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