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Flaxseed in Human Nutrition.
Flaxseed in Human Nutrition

Cunnane, S.C. and Thompson, L. U., eds. 1995. AOCS Press, Champaign IL. 384 pp. ISBN 0-935315-60-8. $90. Hardcover.

Every now and then a new book prompts me to move an herb to the top of the herb-a-day heap. And that's what prompts this article on flax. I cite the title, Flaxseed in Human Nutrition, and that introduction, because I want the FDA to know that flaxseed is and has been food for a long time. Previous to passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) they attacked a food "farmaceutical," saying that it's not a food. Flax is clearly food and has been for millennia. Traditionally flaxseed has been consumed in various forms for over 5,000 years (page v). And the three principal components of nutritional significance -- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), dietary fiber, and polyphenolics (particularly lignans) -- have certainly received their share of good press lately.

Those interested in the origin of words will delight in the historical chapter by Andrew Judd, Faculty of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan (Judd, A. 1995. Flax -- Some Historical Considerations, pp. 1-10). Judd leans on the Compact Oxford Dictionary "as the most reliable source on the linguistic origin of words."

The surprise; Judd blames the word "line" on linen or Linum, scientific generic name of flax. "The word line has many linguistic roots, Old English, Old High German, Middle High German, Old Norse, Swedish and Gothic, all implying its descent from a Latin or Greek ancestor, linum, meaning `flax.' A common origin and antiquity are clearly implied." The words linen, lining, linear, and lineage all derive from the word line. Even the plumb line for the spun thread used in construction may have Biblical origin. See, for example, Ezekiel 40:3, "...with a line of flax in his hand and a measuring reed." There's even some early phenology in the Bible. "For the barley was in the ear and the flax was boiled" (had developed seed heads). "...and when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth" (at the burial of Christ). The word liniment also derives from linum. Finally, sailcloth made of linen is "20 percent stronger wet than dry." Linen was the principal sailcloth duri ng the great sea voyages of discovery (others attribute such sails to another source of GLA, Cannabis, from which the word canvas is derived.) "However, to this day the finest artist's canvases are linen in origin."

Linseed oil is often used as a vehicle for the pigments in painting. In one of the first mechanically reproduced Biblical efforts (Johannes Gutenberg's), the "pigment" was lampblack and the drying agent was predominantly boiled linseed oil. Early rugs were made of flax (though often replaced with wool in the famous Middle Eastern weavings) later too often replaced with linoleum (linum=flax; oleum=oil). In 1847, Michael Narin in Scotland developed the first prototype linoleum from oil paint. Then Frederick Walton in Britain developed a technique for oxidizing linseed oil with a flax weave backing known as the "resilient floor." He patented his product in 1860, the same year American Thomas Armstrong developed linoleum with patterns and colors that "beautify the plain floor."

Piecing the lines of imagination, Judd notes that there are few, if any, slight or linear constructs among primitive hunter-gatherers. "Did the concept of a straight line and its application occur to primitive societies as a consequence of the utility of a flaxen thread?...To what extent has the utilization of flax fiber and flaxseed oil characterized Western civilization....Studies in China indicate that flax has been in use for at least 2,000 years both for its fiber and its medicinal properties...Most Chinese flaxseed is consumed in the diet as oil. Speculation of a much longer Chinese heritage of up to 5,000 years is also recorded."

Ancient Egyptians depicted the growth of flax on papyri, the spinning of flax thread in murals, and the weaving of that thread into linen. Remains of the Pharaohs are bound in fine and delicate linen, woven with an expertise that is still today, 3,000 to 4,000 years later, difficult to repeat. Not only was the linen used in mummy cases, the oil was used in embalming. "Flaxseed oil is traditionally used in Egyptian cuisine in `ful medames,' a stewed (faba) bean dish served with garlic, onions, and cumins." Talk about food "farmacy," I'd recommend that as a food pharmacy approach, replacing a fatty meat dish, for all the major "civilized" diseases, cancer, coronary, diabetes, even impotence and Parkinson's disease! (Faba beans are said to be the beans that incited Cicero to passion.)

Livestock owners have long known that adding flaxseed to food rations improved the quality of the animal's coat, particularly in horses and show animals. That might lead to the addition of linseed oil to the diets and hair products in humans worried about the appearance of their hair. Flaxseed was eaten by ancient Greeks and Romans. Egyptians have consumed it from the time of the Pharaohs to the present. Ethiopians on the southern Nile consume the oil. Asian Indians consume flaxseed oil in cooking. Chinese consume flax domestically, primarily as oil. Why have Europeans incorporated it less frequently into their diet?

Cunnane (1995) goes into great detail about the health functions of ALA (alphalinolenic-acid), which is frequently deficient in humans. Recent clinical studies suggest that ALA can reduce mortality from cancer and cardiopathy. The fiber, mucilage and lignans also help prevent cancer and coronary disease.

[Cunnane, S.C. 1995. Metabolism and function of alpha-linolenic-acid in humans. Chap. 6, pp. 99-127 in Cunnane, S. and Thompson, L.U., eds. 1995. Flaxseed in Human Nutrition. AOCS Press, Champaign IL.]

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By James A. Duke