Once resigned to birdfeeders, seeds are now touted as the missing link to best health. Flax and chia, it seems, have been dueling for the latest title of superfood. But do these two tiny varieties live up to the hype?
Flax and chia have been dueling for the latest title of superfood.
By: Michele Henry Staff reporter, Published on Tue Aug 20 2013
Flaxseed, whether light in colour or a deep honey-brown, is an excellent source of plant-based Omega 3 fatty acids. These good fats, also known as alpha linoleic acid (ALAs), have an anti-inflammatory effect and are linked with a lowered risk of heart disease.
Flax’s fibre, like’s chia’s, has a gummy consistency, which binds to LDLs, the bad cholesterol, and helps lower its levels in the body.
Flaxseeds are nature’s most concentrated form of lignans, says registered dietitian Nanci Guest. These specialized phytoestrogens are associated with bone health, a reduced risk of menopausal symptoms and the prevention of breast and prostate cancers.
Like the phytochemicals in tofu, lignans block the body’s estrogen receptors, fighting hormone-fuelled tumour growth.
Research shows that combining tofu and flax provides “a double dose of breast cancer prevention,” says registered dietitian Shauna Lindzon.
One tablespoon of ground flax — or chia, in fact, — provides the recommended daily dose of ALA for men and women, says Guest.
Grown in Canada’s prairies, flax is non-GMO, says Kelly Fitzpatrick, nutritionist with The Flax Council of Canada.
Ground flax works well in baking.
Eggs, from flax-fed hens, are a good source of Omega 3s because chickens, more efficiently than humans, convert the plant-based ALAs into EPA and DHA, the unsaturated fatty acids our brains require for nerve transmissions, which are most potently found in fish oils.
Unless ground or chewed vigorously, Flax is entirely insoluble fibre which comes out of the body in pretty much the same form as it went in. If flax’s hard outer husk remains in tact, we don’t get the benefit of its heart healthy Omega 3s or lignans.
It’s long been thought our bodies don’t adequately convert plant ALA to DHA and EPA. Turns out, that may not be entirely true. New, as yet unpublished research from the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences suggests, vegans are quite good at the conversion. “If we weren’t that good at synthesizing ALA we would have consequences,” says University of Toronto professor Richard Bazinet. “But vegans don’t seem to have those consequences. Somehow the body adapts.”
Flax oil may be the most concentrated source of plant Omega 3s, but it doesn’t contain the lignans, protein or fibre. And it can’t be used in cooking. The oil’s low smoke point produces toxic by-products when heated.
Compared to flax, chia seed has 20 per cent more fibre per serving, Guest says, which expands in our digestive tracts, helping us feel full.
A source of soluble fibre, Chia, like flax, is linked with a lowered risk of Type 2 Diabetes because it slows the absorption of glucose and helps regulate blood sugar levels.
About two tablespoons of chia — or flax — sprinkled onto cereal, say, can meet about 25 per cent of our daily fibre requirement.
Chia, like flax, is also rich in ALAs, and both are a source of magnesium, which is essential for cell functions and catalyzing chemical reactions in the body.
When it comes to calcium, which is essential for bone health, Chia has a bit more than flax and doesn’t need to be broken down for our bodies to harvest its benefits. Lindzon says, ground chia may be an even better source of calcium.
Like flax, chia seed contains magnesium, a calming mineral that also helps lower blood pressure and aids in sleep.
Chia may have a bit of an edge over flax in some areas, but it’s higher in calories (about 70 calories per tablespoon compared with flax’s 50 calories per tablespoon).
And chia does not have lignans, the powerful phytoestrogens with bone-building, cancer-fighting properties.
Like flax, chia must be stored in the fridge because it will go rancid after long periods at room temperature.
Possibly because it must travel from where it’s grown in Latin America and Mexico, chia is more expensive than flax.
The Bottom Line:
“A person who wants to eat well and stay healthy eats both,” says Guest. “The more colours, the more nutrients, the more textures, the more variety you’re getting the better. There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one.”
Flax and chia are high calorie in high doses, so a little goes a long way. Sprinkle a tablespoon onto anything from cereals to salads, smoothies to yogurt. They’re a convenient, flavour neutral way to pack a punch of phytochemicals into your diet.