Flax, as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, could be of immense benefit to heart, Canadian researchers say.
The plant has been used for centuries for everything from paper to dyes to fishing nets, but its utility as a source of omega-3 fatty acids is whetting the curiosity of scientists worldwide.
Flax is a native plant that grows from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to India. The erect annual plant was first cultivated in Egypt and grows to 120 cm tall. The seeds are used to produce linseed oil or flaxseed oil. The oil is a good source of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids, it has been found.
Now a Canadian hospital is embarking on a major two-year study of the subject and it will involve 250 persons.
"The omega-3s, we know from fish oil, are very good for you," said Grant Pierce, executive director of research at St. Boniface Hospital, Winnipeg.
"The second thing that's good for you is that it has something called lignans, which are just compounds that are very strong antioxidants."
Flax is also a good source of fibre, another helper for cardiovascular health.
While there is evidence that those three components can help human health, there is no hard proof that flax can help fight heart disease.
"When we started the work, we started with animal trials, looking to see if it would help the heart health of animals," Pierce said.
"And in those studies, we identified it really was good for cardiovascular health. In other words, it helped maintain a regular beating of the heart and it seemed to stop the blockages in ... arteries."
Flax is not a common ingredient in many foods, so the research team is having muffins, bagels, pasta and other items specially made for the project with high levels of flax seeds.
Half of the study group will eat 30 grams of ground flax seed each day. The other half will eat a similar diet minus the flax seed.
If flax eventually becomes recognized as a wonder food, it would be a big boost for Canadian farmers, who currently produce 40 per cent of the world's flax.
But that may be a big if, CBC News cautions.
"There's a lot of evidence that points toward it being an important and healthy component of a diet, but in terms of [fighting] specific diseases, that's a different story," said Joe Schwarcz, a medical nutrition professor at McGill University in Montreal and director of the school's office for science and society.
"Trouble comes when people start looking at food components as if they were drugs instead of looking at them as food components. I think it's a very good idea to have some sort of oats or oatmeal for breakfast with berries on it and a spoonful of flax seed, but you don't go eating flax at every meal because you think it's going to prevent some disease."
The two-year study is not long enough to determine whether the incidence of heart disease will go down among study participants, Schwarcz said, but is long enough to see whether telltale signs such as cholesterol levels are reduced.
"I think that that is very likely to happen. There is certainly enough evidence that flax lowers cholesterol," he said.