Most of us had only barely heard of flax meal before we went low carb. (Isn’t that the stuff that people sprinkle on their yogurt?)
Then we changed our diet, and bam! Suddenly flax meal is everywhere: a thickener in soups, a binding agent in meat dishes, a flour substitute in breads and cakes. We can’t turn around without bumping into the stuff.
Eventually most of us figure out that flax is a seed, it’s chock full of fiber and nutrients, and it’s one of the most inexpensive grain substitutes around. Beyond that, however, the information we get depends on the questions we ask or the searches we run—and some of those questions or searches are the type that you never think of until after you need them!
Here, then, are ten basic Must-Know Flax Facts. Some of these I learned quite easily, but only because I guessed the questions right. Others I’ve had to stumble across by accident. I hope they help you get the most out of this complex—and confusing—little seed.
Ten Must-Know Flax Facts
1. Golden vs. brown: it’s okay to vote with your wallet.
Flax seeds and meal can be either brown or golden. And there’s a lot of hype out there about the golden flax tasting better or otherwise being more desirable. Most people can’t tell a difference in flavor or consistency, though, and both types have the same nutritional makeup.*
In other words, the only meaningful differences between golden and brown flax are the color and the price: brown flax seeds and meal usually cost less than their golden counterparts. I recommend that you go with the brown, no matter what a recipe says–unless you have a special reason for wanting that golden color in something!
*An exception is solin (brand name Linola). Solin is a yellow mutant strain of flax with lower omega-3s than other varieties. But solin was developed as livestock feed; you’re not likely to find it in your grocery or health food store! (Solin is ignored in the rest of this article.)
2. You don’t need to worry about that cyanide.
Some people hear that there’s cyanide in flax, and they get worried. Flaxseeds actually contain two compounds which can form cyanide when they get together. They can’t get together inside the seed, heat neutralizes them, and our own bodies neutralize small amounts. Other foods we eat regularly, such as cashews, have as much as or more cyanide than flax. Bottom line? The U.S. government says that 3 tablespoons of raw flax meal is “certainly safe,” and most researchers put the number at 6 to 8 tablespoons. (Cooked flax, of course, simply isn’t an issue.)
3. You may need to train yourself to tolerate the fiber.
As we mentioned earlier, flaxseeds and flax meal are extremely high in fiber. This can make them seem like a low carber’s dream, since the fiber doesn’t count against us in carb counts. But that fiber load can also cause gastrointestinal distress until you get used to it. (The fiber usually acts as a laxative, but it can cause constipation if you aren’t getting enough water.) This usually isn’t a problem in recipes where flax is a minor ingredient, but it can be trouble if you’re making breads and cakes. If you’ve never had flax start by eating a little at a time, then gradually increase your daily servings. (People with irritable bowel syndrome will need to be especially careful with this.)
4. Be aware of those phytoestrogens.
Flax contains phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogen-like compounds). So do many other foods–including coffee! Phytoestrogens are beneficial to many of us: they may prevent some cancers and help with mood (in both men and women), and they’re invaluable to most women during the menopause years. But some people do find that phytoestrogens can serve as hormone disruptors, throwing the body out of whack. If this is a problem for you, research lignans–the type of phytoestrogens in flax seed–and see if you should be concerned.
5. Flax should be stored carefully and checked often.
Flax is high in omega-3 fatty acids, that “good” fat that we usually associate with fish. But those omega-3s can go rancid easily, especially when exposed to heat and light. Store flax in airtight opaque containers away from heat. (I usually keep flaxseeds in a kitchen cabinet and flax meal in the freezer.) Flaxseeds will keep for up to a year when stored this way; flax meal will stay good for 3 – 4 months. (If you have vacuum-packed seeds or meal, though, the clock doesn’t start ticking until you open the package.)
Please note: Healthy flax seeds and meal have a bland, mildly nutty flavor. Rancid flax will taste bitter or sour, and will sometimes have a sour smell. If the taste is wrong, throw it out!
6. Cooking won’t hurt those omega-3s.
Despite the fact that prolonged exposure to heat will ruin your flax, cooking will not. I’m fuzzy on the details of the biochemistry, but I understand we can think of fish again here. Bring home some fresh salmon, store it in the fridge for a bit, then bake it, and voilá! You just added some great omega-3s to your diet. But if you bring that fish home and leave it on the counter too long, all you’ve done is added a royal stink to your house. It’s the same basic principle with flax.
7. Raw flaxseeds are useless—except when they’re not.
Whole raw flaxseeds have a tough coating that renders them indigestible to humans: they go straight through without giving us anything in return. Nutritionally, then, whole raw flaxseeds are useless; that’s one reason we roast or grind them.
Remember, though, that those seeds stay fresh longer than flax meal. What’s more, the whole raw seeds tend to cost less per pound: the difference is anywhere from 50¢ – $1.00 per pound, and sometimes more. The raw seeds also cost less than the roasted, so if you like roasted flaxseeds, it’s worth it to try roasting your own.
8. Making flax meal is easier than you might think.
Between the storage issues and the price differences, you owe it to yourself to try homemade flax meal at least once. Flax meal is easy to make, although it can be time-consuming.
Some people use a coffee grinder, some use a food processor, and some use a blender to grind their seeds to meal. Machines that botch nut flours will still usually produce flax meal with no problems.
All you have to do is pour some seeds in and let the machine do the rest. You may need to do a little experimenting, though, to find out how much your appliance can grind at once. Decide if the cost savings are worth taking the time to grind flax once or twice a month.
9. Fresh flax meal doesn’t act like older meal in a recipe.
I’m finding that fresh-ground flax meal is “fluffier” than meal that’s been on the shelf a while. The fresh stuff has more volume and makes a more liquid, stickier, and less dense dough. In addition, the final product rises more when made with fresh meal than it does when made with older.
I’m still experimenting with this property of flax meal. I’m getting some indication that part of it is the age of the seeds, and part of it is how long ago the meal was ground. Until I figure out more—or find someone else who has—just keep the basic principle in mind: if a recipe doesn’t behave the way the writer claimed it would, they may be using a different age flax meal. You might need to adjust your amounts accordingly.
10. There’s a trick to finding flax meal in the nutritional databases.
If you need to keep careful count of your food intake, please know that looking up flax meal can be confusing and frustrating. Most of those online diet-tracking sites draw on the USDA’s nutritional database, and that database doesn’t have a separate entry for flax meal.
Instead, choose “Seeds, flaxseed” in the “Nut and Seed Products” category. Then select “tbsp, ground” in the serving section and fill in the number of tablespoons. (If you’re needing to check the nutrition on a whole recipe, remember that 16 tablespoons = 1 cup.)
And that’s the list! You now know more than I did when I started working with flax meal a few months ago. Happy cooking!
Did you find this list helpful? Feel like I missed something? Know what’s up with that fresh flax meal? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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