Technology & Science

Evidence mounts on health benefits of flax

Flax is gaining popularity for its health benefits in preventing heart disease, diabetes and constipation.

Flax, a grain that has been used for thousands of years in food and linen, is finding new popularity for its health benefits from fighting heart disease to preventing constipation.

"Flax contains something we call soluble fibre," said Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor and director of McGill University's office for science and society.

"Soluble fibre binds cholesterol in the gut, prevents it from being absorbed."

Flax also has a positive effect on inflamatory conditions, which may explain why it seems to help prevent heart attack and stroke, said Schwarcz, who adds a tablespoon of ground flax to his morning cereal.

Flax is a plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids, a potent antioxidant. Evidence suggests it can reduce the risk or growth of hormone-driven cancers such as of the prostate and breast.

Researchers at the University of Toronto found breast cancer patients who ate muffins with flax seed had slower-progressing cancers.

As the studies continue, more consumers are being sold on the benefits of flax. At a mill in Middleton in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, business in grinding the grain is growing 30 per cent a year to meet demand.

Owner and registered dietitian Howard Selig sells flax flour to bakeries, stores and nursing homes.

"It's a very low glycemic index food," said Selig, who recently told a national diabetes conference that flax can help prevent diabetes. "Added to a meal, instead of having a high blood sugar peak after the meal, this will help moderate that increase in blood sugar."

At the North Queens Nursing Home in Caledonia, N.S., adding flax to residents' diets has reduced constipation and use of enemas, suppositories and laxatives.

"We decreased our enema use by about 61 per cent, which was great because that's an invasive procedure for our residents," said Joy Boyle, who works at the home.

Flax has its benefits, but it is not a miracle food. The trick is to add flax to an already healthy diet, said Schwarcz.