Back to the Future: Nutritious Flax Seed Oil

Once upon a time in a far-off land, every town and hamlet had its own oil mill. A large and prosperous household even had its own oil press, for in that time and place oil-making was a domestic activity -- part of the usual kitchen routine. Many plants and seeds were used, but the favourite for producing oil was the flax seed. It had a nutty, rich, almost creamy flavour, which tasted (according to legend), a lot like fresh butter.

The people worked hard in their kitchens and mills. Making oil was only one of dozens of arduous manual chores. But everyone enjoyed good food, and health and happiness abounded (except for periods of war, famine, and epidemics of infectious disease.) As hamlets grew to towns and towns to cities, it became common-place to have fresh oil delivered door-to-door, just like milk, eggs and butter at a later time. The flax seed oil was still sold in small quantities, and used only if fresh -- the people understood its health-sustaining properties and therapeutic value for treating a wide variety of problems.

When the people learned to use machinery and specialization to make their daily chores less arduous, oil-making practices changed. Local mills were replaced by big processing factories, capable of through-puts of hundreds of tons per day. The small batch presses formerly operated by hand, water or wind -- were supplanted by automated continuous-feed inventions. These were run at rates and pressures that raised the temperature of the oil far above boiling point. Plots of land where the flax grew began to be displaced by big farms that had to use pesticides because of the mono-culture farming techniques of the time. Hydrocarbon solvents extracted more flax oil at a faster rate. The oil was boiled and bleached, de-gummed and deodorized.

Despite these 'advanced' techniques, flax seed oil presented a problem. It contained 'impurities' which caused it to spoil quickly and 'refine' with difficulty. Heat, light, air, and time provoked rancidity. The people began to think that oil should be dear and tasteless, because whenever they did see or taste anything in an oil, it was rancid. So flax seed oil eventually disappeared from the marketplace, taken over by corn and soy oil, among others.

It was late 20th century, and these were terrible, terrible times. Cancer and heart disease were proliferating at ever earlier ages, people were fearful of saturated fats and cholesterol, and even the wisest doctors of this era couldn't ague on what to do.

In those dark late 20th century years, however, there was some level of understanding. It was now known that the two major 'impurities' in flax seed oil-linoleic acid (LA) and linolenic add (LNA)were actually substances of great benefit: two fatty adds that the human body could not synthesize. Because they could be obtained only from dietary sources, they were called Essential Fatty Adds (EFAs). Now it was dear: The very reason flax seed oil had such a high percentage of these salutary essential fatty adds was the very reason this valuable oil became rancid so quickly.

The researchers of the time even knew why the EFAS were so important in human nutrition. They were described as precursors, or chemical building blocks, of a whole class of more elaborate fatty adds. These substances in turn are precursors for the synthesis of literally thousands of enzymes, hormones, and prostaglandins. And flax seed oil had such a high percentage of these salutary essential fatty acids! Arachidonic Acid (AA), made from LA, is vital to immune functions at the ceil membrane level, regulating viral infection and resistance to toxins. Eicosopentoenoic add (EPA) and docosahexaenoic add (DHA) are derivatives of LNA. EPA and DHA are also found in the oil of cold-water fish, and the journals tell of clinical studies in which fresh fish in the diet significantly reduced the risk of fatal heart attacks. Concentrated fish oils were used as a dietary supplement because EPA and DHA were necessary to produce the prostaglandins that control and limit blood platelet aggregation. The best nutritionists understood that an ample supply of LA and LNA, as was once provided in abundance by fresh flax seed oil, was another way of insuring sufficient supplies of these health-promoting substances.

Throughout this period, medical authorities were imploring the population to increase their intake of polyunsaturated oils because of the deficiencies of the EFAs in the normal diet. But despite repeated trials -- some involving thousands of people for generations and costing hundreds of millions of dollars -- it could not be demonstrated consistently that increasing the amount of polyunsaturated oil would have any overall beneficial effect on health.

At the same time, the standard advice was to minimize foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol was thought to be a major force causing atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. This was another fact that could not be demonstrated consistently -- regardless of the great efforts on the part of medical institutes and drug companies. Untold sums of money were spent on long-term trials in an effort to market cholesterol-lowering formulations.

We now know that those efforts were futile. The real problems was that virtually all the food oils available to the consumer were subjected to the same high-temperature, chemical-intensive, long-lead-time distribution process that drove flax seed oil off the market. Even if the oils started out with adequate proportions of EFAs (among other nutrients), high temperature and additional factors caused the fatty acids to hydrogenate, oxidize and distort into very unnatural and often toxic forms.

One of the most deadly of these distortions was the relocation of hydrogen atoms around the fatty acid. (Naturally occurring polyunsaturated fatty acids have all the 'missing' hydrogen atom locations on the same side of the molecule, resulting in an overall curve caused by the unbalanced repulsion of the hydrogens on the other side. In the unnatural trans configuration, which is actually a lower energy state and therefore more stable, the molecule is relatively straight and has vastly different properties.) The resulting molecule was chemically similar in many respects, but different enough to be inconsistent with natural biological processes. The effect was like throwing a monkey wrench into the elaborate machinery of fat metabolism, contributing to the disease state.

It got worse. Food engineers deliberately caused polyunsaturated oils to hydrogenate artificially in order to change their structural properties. This was done to achieve the desired thickness, emulsification, or 'mouth feel.' Hardly a processed product was sold in late 20th century that didn't contain some 'hardened' or hydrogenated oil as a significant ingredient. The food regulatory agencies of the time, lenient though they tended to be, probably would have outlawed such dangerous practices. But their hands were tied because many of these techniques were already in use when the agencies came into existence. No wonder those people suffered with so many diseases related to cell membrane activity, immune function, and fat metabolism.

Now that we are in the next century, we can be thankful that we live at a time when these basic relationships between food and health are universally recognized. We no longer have to worry about insecticides in produce or carcinogenic additives in prepared foods. Air is clear and water is pure. Meat comes from free-running animals, and the fisheries resources have returned to pre-industrial levels: the oceans are dean again. We have become smart enough to almost completely eliminate added sugar, salt, and high-temperature cooking.

Equally important, we appreciate the health value and taste of natural flax seed oil -- an oil with a slow absorption rate, high in magnesium, rich in lecithin, unmatched in its percentage as a natural source of Omega 3s, devoid of trans fatty acids -- processed much the same way it was long ago.

Epilogue: Do you actually have to wait for the 2000s for all this to happen? Yes, for most wholesome food and water. But no, not for pure, unadulterated, non-rancid health-promoting flax seed oil. Right now, in 1990, there are oils in your local-health food store that meet these requirements, among them Glanolin Flax Seed Oil.

Dr. Betty Kamen, with degrees in psychology and nutrition education, and experience as an award-winning photojournalist and university instructor, has made her mark as a health expert in the media. Betty has hosted major radio and TV programs, produced nationally distributed nutrition filmstrips, and authored eleven books, the most recent of which is: Cholesterol: New Facts; New Solutions. For information on Dr. Kamen' s educational books and tapes, send self-addressed envelope to Nutrition, Box 2736, Novato, CA 94948.

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By Betty Kamen

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