Flax On, Flax Off
By Emily Powell
Flax. Odds are you’ve seen it on many labels – cereals, supplements, bars, oils, muffins, socks, linoleum flooring (yes, linoleum flooring). Many online blogs, much like the one I’m writing now, praise and proclaim the universal benefits of a sprinkle/dash/teaspoon of ground flaxseed, more so in recent years than ever before. But is this much ado about nothing, or is there legitimacy behind this flax craze?
The Canadian Council on Flax says that flax plants (of which there are two: fiber flax and seed flax) are self-pollinating crops which are universally adaptive to nearly any temperate climate, making them valuable fillers in crop rotations and easy to grow in even the most unruly temperatures. Fiber flax is grown for fiber – parchment paper, fabric, etc. – while seed flax is grown for human consumption and can also be crushed to make linseed meal and oil. This linseed oil is a primary ingredient in the sustainable flooring material linoleum. Especially in human consumption, as the health-fad magazines/blogs/websites/tabloids agree, flax proves itself to be a valuable and healthy product.
Bon Appetit magazine tells us that flaxseed oil has a low smoke point, meaning that it should not be used to sauté, simmer, or fry over heat, lest you burn what you endeavor to cook… but that’s pretty much the only thing you can’t do with flax. You can add ground flax to hot and cold cereals, quick breads, salad dressings, yogurt parfaits, ice cream, peanut butter, and anything else you can bear, in order to bring you a lifetime of health benefits and improved protection from possible heart disease. This is because ground flax, which is much easier to digest than whole flaxseeds, is very high in unsaturated Omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids have crucial roles in signaling and transport systems of cell membranes, says the Harvard School of Public Health, and help regulate hormones that prevent blood clotting and inflammation. Increased consumption of this healthy unsaturated fat, as opposed to saturated fats from dairy and meat products, is an important part of a balanced diet that could contribute to increased longevity. It also brings a subtly, smoky, “earthy” tone to a wide array of rich and nutritious foods, says Bon Appetit. It might be a wise investment.
In addition to the rising demand for flax because of these health benefits, flaxseed is also a low-input and profitable crop whose uses extend beyond the kitchen. As a more sustainable and durable alternative to cotton, and as a biodegradable and eco-friendly alternative to polyester, fabric brands such as Hanes are incorporating flax fibers into their products. As polyester continues to fill our landfills, and as increasing pressure is placed on the manufacturing industry to choose sustainable materials and designs, flax fiber could be one of the primary ingredients of tomorrow’s linens, blouses, and undergarments. Oh, and the linoleum flooring, made from the linseed oil of ground flax. You could be walking on, wearing, and eating flax all at the same time. What a time to be alive.
It’s good to know there are many positive, useful innovations in the world today – the variety and diversity of uses for flaxseed included. Given, the sustainable alternatives to man-made materials do not all come from the same plant. Flaxseed is not the answer to all our problems; in fact, heavy dependence on a single crop is definitely not the answer to any problem. But with the versatility and durability of flax products, it is evident that this industry is not just another health diet/fad/trend. Flax has been here since 7000BC, and it’s ready to make a comeback. Keep an eye out for it, because it’s coming to a smoothie bowl, pair of socks, and maybe even a gas tank near you.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.