Thursday, February 15, 2007

The secrets of Flax......

Great things come in small sizes. And they have great histories behind them.
(I am not sure I am quoting anyone there, much as it sounds like a "saying". I just made that up. ).

And so it is with the seeds of the plant
known as the flax plant. Today, the importance of flax seeds as a part of our
diet cannot be emphasized enough.
It has almost a world wide presence, being native to ,
Egypt, India, Iraq, South and Central America, Kurdistan, Peru, Spain, Turkey, Venezuela, USA, Canada, China, and much of Europe.

Flax originated in Asia about 5000 years ago and has been used for thousands of years in what are considered the older civilisations of the world. According to some, flax is thought to have originatd in Mesopotamia, and some believe that it has been known to folks even in the Stone Ages.

In the middle ages , when things got pretty exciting with witches , sorcery, burning, etc, the blue flowers of the flax plant were considered a surefire protection aganist sorcery. In Bohemia, where less violent life styles were the order of the day, children were encouraged to dance amoong the flax pants, so as to improve upon their looks. (I am continually amazed at the abysymmal ignorance of folks like Revlon,Neutrogina,Loreal and assorted "beauty types" about this. But we shall let that pass...).

As if all this was not enough, flax, per se, was under the Divine Protection of the Teutonic Goddess , Hulda, who is supposed to have guided the mortals, regarding the growing and subsequent uses of the flax plant. It is , however a continuing mystery what has happened to all these goddesses , in todays world, where deforestation is rampant,, and mountains are being quarried and flattened , all in the name of progress. I guess , sometimes, even the Gods may have had enough....

Flax seeds and cloth were found in Egyptian tombs as far back as 23rd century BC. Flax seeds are mentioned in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments and are mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as being used for sail cloth and cords.

The earliest use of flax seeds in the field of cooking, may be attributed, like several other things, to the Greeks. In both that civilization and in ancient Rome, the health benefits of flaxseeds were widely praised. After the fall of Rome, the cultivation and popularity of flaxseeds declined. (The continuing involvement of Rome, and its citizens, in all the exciting chapters of human development will be the subject of another study , maybe !).

But flax came into its own , once again, thanks to Emperor Charlemagne. Besides being the architect and shaper of European history, he did not allow his grandiose royal lifestyle to close his eyes to the lifestyles of the ordinary and non-famous. He observed the culinary, medicinal, and fibrous uses of flax seeds, by the populace, and was so impressed, that in the 8th century B.C. he actually passed a law making compulsory, the growing and consumption of these seeds. This was the entry of flax into Europe, and would have more repurcussions than Europeans ever realised, and we are not referring only to the medicinal, intestinal clearing properties of flax.

Flax, is a slender, grass-like, annual plant with narrow leaves that blooms with small light blue flowers in early summer. Flax is planted in the early spring, and ranges in height between eighteen to thirty inches. When the seed pods replace the flowers the flax is considered ready to be harvested.

Thanks to Empereor Charlemagne's masterstroke, Ireland began growing the best quality flax around 1000 BC.

And just when you thought all you do with flax is eat, listen to this...

uring the eighteenth century, in Ireland, flax was the only cash crop produced by the vast majority of the people, especially the small farmholders. Why flax ? Becuase it was what made Irish Linen , Irish Linen. The stalks of the Flax plant were processed and provided to the manufacturers and weavers of the linen. Potatoes and oats were produced to feed the people and animals. Production of the crop during the summer, and weaving the yarn during the winter kept the people occupied all year round. They became highly skilled at the industry and their craftsmanship was known and recognised far and wide. Irish Longford linen was equal to the best in the world. When the famine hit Ireland, and folks migrated across the Atlantic to the New World, a lot of the flax went along with them, and grew and prospered in the USA.

The question arises as to whether , with all the well known properties of flax for the betterment of one's health, were the irish aware of it ? The answer tells you why some foods are native to some areas, but everyone does not use that foodstuff the same way. It turns out that
although the Irish climate was found to be very suitable for growing flax, short harvests were not favourable to ripening the flax seeds, therefore no seed or linseed products were produced. The crop was harvested for linen production only while it was in full flower. In dryer climates linseed and linseed products were used for a more widely varied number of products, such as animal meals, oil, paint, varnish, French polish, soap, animal laxatives, oil cloth and linoleum. Pectin was also extracted by boiling.

All across the world today, flax , which is basically an oilseed , is primarily used for its lubricative and medicinal properties.

Hippocrates, the father of all modern medicine, actually wrote of using flax seeds for relief from abdominal pain.

In many countries, historically, flax seeds were part of the seasonal diet. Today in western countries, using flax seeds in muffins, cakes etc, has become an innovative and beneficial thing to do.

But it is interesting to note that in the non-coastal regions of India, a dry ground spiced flax seed mixture is the condiment of choice , eaten with great relish in the winter season, along with freshly rolled whole wheat and other grain tortiillas. Today, during winters, farmer households , will typically make a wonderful dry mixture of dry roasted and gropund flaxseeds, cayenne pepper, salt and garlic, and this is stored in a earthen vessel . A freshly roasted tortilla, with a crushed fresh onion, sprinkled with this flax misture, is the lunch of convenience for the farmers, as they rest under the shade of a mango tree , at lunchtime. Across more urban or more prosperous households, variations of this mixture are seen. People often go overboard in the pursuit of stuff that would tickle the tongue, as opposed to comfort the heart, and you see people adding all kinds of things to this mixture, such as other oilseeds and coconut etc, that completely defeat the medical benefits of flax seeds.

What are these ?

Researchers believe that the lignans, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids (EFA's) found in ground flax seed are essential to good health. EFA's or essential fatty acids ( Linolenic acid and Linoleic acid ) are not produced by our bodies, and flax seeds are an excellent source. The Omega-3 component is the magic stuff. Those people who eat certain types of fish, do obtain this in their diet, but for those who swear by a vegetarian diet, flax seeds then become the only source. (Mixing up all kinds of other oilseeds etc in these flax seeds mixtures , simply dilutes the benefits).

Roasted flax seeds, powdered coarsely, have a wonderful nutty taste. Those who need a spicy tingle on their tongues, may add a variety of spices here like cayenne pepper etc. But it even tastes wonderful with a pinch of salt.

Flax seeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. About one-third of the fiber in flax seed is soluble, and soluble fiber can aid in lowering cholesterol and regulating blood sugar levels. Two-thirds of the fiber in flax seeds is insoluble. Insoluble fiber aids digestion by increasing bulk and preventing constipation. These characteristics seem to have a role in reducing incidents of colon cancer.

What is interesting is that to get all these benefits, one must use ground
flax seeds. Flax seeds, per se, by themselves, whole, are not digestible. They need to be roasted well and ground coarsely to be digestible as well as to obtain the required medicinal benefits. Ground Flax Seed is rich in protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese and zinc. The fiber benefits of flax seed can only be found in the ground flax seed.

Then there is Flax seed oil. A lot of people experiment with taking a fixed dosage of flax seed oil. The main thiing to remember is that the nutrients available in the flax seed, get depleted and destroyed in the process of extracting the oil. Besides fibre , flax seeds contain what are known as Lignans and ALA (alpha linloleic acid -omega-3). These lignans are of immense interest, as for possible use in breast and colon cancer as well as some kidney diseases. Conversion to oil only leaves the fibre for your usage. So its very desirable that the seeds be cosumed in preference to the oil. In addition, it is observed that flax oil goes rancid very fast.

Remember that flax seed must not be consumed raw, and /or whole. The unbroken seed has a tendency to pass unchanged through the human ailimentary canal . If at all roasted seed is to be eaten whole, it must be nicely chewed before it is ingested.

Flax seeds, due to the fibre they provide are an ideal food for those suffering from constipation.

Eatern medicine systems often link the skin , and bone health with the ability to clear one's intestines daily in order to throw out the toxic body wastes. So it goes without saying that its is not surprising that consumption of flax seeds is also known to help people with acne and other skin problems, as well as some cases of arthritis.

Regular intake of flax also helps in improving your heart health. The quickest way to improve your "good" cholesterol or HDL , is to have a regular intake of flax every day.

One however, needs to be careful of not over doing the flax, as for those with very sensitive guts, and with a tendency to get your colon muscles into peristalsis very easily, this may mean quick and fast trips to the toilet for a while.
Flax seeds are an astringent, and have , basically, a laxative action.

Very recently, research has been done to see if fish oil or the omega-3 variety of oil (for which non fish eaters patronise flax) , has any effect on brain function. It appears that the Omega-3 oils may help in concentration and is actually a nutrient that the brain can use.
Omega-3 fats seem to work by making the thin fatty membranes that surround the nerve cells in the brain more flexible. This allows more neurotransmitters to be successfully transmitted between nerve cells, increasing our ability to think faster and concentrate better. Omega-3 has also been shown to have a number of other effects that control harmful inflammation (arthritis) and even possibly prevent depression.

So what is the ideal dose of flax seeds ? About 25 to 30 gms of flax roasted seeds is suggested.

But remember, you cannot make huge quantities of ground flax , as it does not keep well over time. Flax oil, as we know, gets rancid very fast; the ground flax loses its flavour as well as its nutrients if kept for a long time.

The trick is to grind a small bottle full of flax along with other benficial tasteful things like cayenne pepper, garlic, salt. It tastes winderful on pasta, toast , and even pizza.

Like they said in an ad, when I was younger, "Try it, you'll like it". .

Flax seeds are very small seeds , but as we see often in life, its the small things that have the biggest impact.....

On a completely non technical note, and surprising as it may seem , flax has been the inspiration for poetry for some people.

In the Boston Poets First Edition,
Wendy Mnookin, a poet living in Newton , Massachussets writes :


Laundry hangs out its stripes,
the counter shines. Even the cat
feels the satisfaction of Tuesday.

For his third birthday
my son asked for a white cake.
I baked angel food,
brought recipe and egg whites and beater
to the cabin in Maine.

He cried when he saw it.
He meant a not-chocolate cake.
He meant a yellow cake.

I heat the oven for bread,
measure flour and flax,
proof the yeast in warm milk.
Apples plead for their skin, thin

and necessary covering.
When I wash my hands,
flax seeds cling to my fingers,
the hems of my sleeves.

Gathered in deep waiting, seeds
have all the time in the world.



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