A Focus on Fatty Acids
Part of the reason fats and oils have earned such a bad reputation in recent years is because people eat too much fat, particularly too much saturated fat. (Saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease.)
Although about 41 per cent of flax is oil, very little of that is saturated. More than 70 per cent of fat in flax is of the healthful polyunsaturated type. In fact, a unique feature of flax is the high ratio of alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) to linoleic (omega-6 fatty acids).
Nutritionists consider these two polyunsaturated fatty acids as essential because the body cannot manufacture them from any other substances. (Normally, the body converts carbohydrates, proteins and fats into fatty acids as needed.) That means they must be eaten as part of the diet.
While other plant seeds — corn, sunflower, peanuts — contain omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, flax is the only one that contains so much of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Understanding how these two types of polyunsaturated fat differ, can help underscore why flax has so many unique health benefits.
|Fatty Acid Composition of Flax Oil|
|% of total fatty acids|
|Saturated fatty acids 9||9|
|Polyunsaturated fatty acids|
|Omega-3 fatty acids||57|
|Omega-6 fatty acids||16|
Omega-3 fatty acids — More than half the fat in flax seeds is alpha-linolenic fatty acid (ALA), the essential omega-3 fatty acid. Scientific studies reporting health benefits for omega-3 fatty acids show that these fatty acids are required for proper infant growth and development. Cholesterol can be reduced by adding flax to the diet. New research also suggests that ALA offers protective effects against both coronary heart disease and stroke. Omega-3s have been shown to also protect against hypertension, and inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Long-term studies of flax effects on breast cancer are now underway.
Omega-6 fatty acids — An essential fatty acid, linoleic is the chief polyunsaturated fat in the North American diet. Most omega-6 fatty acids in the diet come from vegetable oils.
Ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s — Studies of hunter-gatherer populations show their diets contained roughly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega -3 fatty acids. Currently, researchers and nutrition experts recommend people replace some omega-6 fatty acids in their diet with omega-3 fatty acids like those found in flax.