Flax, Chia, or Hemp? A Nutrition Showdown
We all know that eating flax, chia, and hemp seed is good for our health (even if we aren’t entirely sure why). In a nutshell – or should I say, a “seed” shell – flax, chia, and hemp all contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA for short); the parent fat of the omega 3 family. Susan Macfarlene here to discuss these important omega 3 sources.
Omega 3 is an essential fat because our body is unable to make it (although we can convert small amounts of ALA into DHA and EPA, the type of omega 3 found in algae and animals that eat algae). The heart healthy benefits of consuming omega 3 have been well-established, although most of these benefits have been attributed to EPA and DHA. In a recent review (1), ALA was found to have a modest benefit in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, and demonstrated the following health-promoting properties (1):
- Reduced hardening of plaque
- Lowered blood cholesterol
- Promoted healthy artery walls
- Prevented clots from forming
- Prevented arrhythmia
- Lowered inflammation
However, what research on ALA does not answer is what the best source is between the popular choices of chia, flax, and hemp seed.
One of the first crops domesticated by humans, flax has been commercially produced in the United States since 1753 and is used today for both its oil and seed (2). By weight, flax is 41% fat, 20% protein, and 28% fibre (containing both soluble and insoluble fibre), with a highly desirable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of approximately 0.3:1 (3). In addition to being a good source of vitamin E (3), flax seeds also contain calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of ground flaxseeds seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (7 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||22.8||1.6|
|Omega 6 (g)||5.9||0.4|
Flax seeds are also rich in bioactive substances, most notably lignans, which exert health-promoting properties as a phytoestrogen and antioxidant (3). For example, lignans from flax seed have been shown to decrease biomarkers of breast cancer in premenopausal women (4), as well as supress the growth of tumours (5). Furthermore, the bioactive substances in flax may lower cholesterol (especially in post-menopausal women), reduce the risk of comorbidities associated with obesity, and mitigate inflammation (3).
Chia seeds are a relative of the mint family and were traditionally used in Central and South America as a medicinal and staple food (6). In North America, chia seeds gained popularity in the 1980s as “Chia Pets”; terracotta figurines that sprouted chia seeds to resemble an animal’s fur or hair. Nowadays, people are more likely to consume, rather than grow, chia seeds, thanks in part to their impressive nutritional profile.
By weight, chia seeds are 53% fat, 35% carbohydrate, and 12% protein (containing all nine essential amino acids) and are a good source of both insoluble and soluble fibre (6). In addition, chia seeds are high in antioxidants and contain the minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium. Unlike flax seeds, which in their whole form will pass through digestion unabsorbed, chia seeds can be digested and absorbed in their whole form (6). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (11 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||17.8||2.0|
|Omega 6 (g)||5.8||0.6|
There is a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of chia seeds in the prevention and management of chronic diseases. Nonetheless, a few studies have suggested that chia seeds may help prolong satiety (7), reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and keep post-meal blood sugars stable (8).
Hemp seed has seen its fair share of controversy since it hails from the same plant as marijuana. Because of this, both Canada and the United States had regulations that limited, or outright banned, the growing of hemp seed, despite its very low content of THC (
0.2%), which is effectively removed by processing and cleaning (9,10). Thankfully, these bans have been lifted, allowing North Americans to reap the nutritional benefits of these hearty seeds.
By weight, hemp seeds are 20% to 25% protein, 20% to 30% carbohydrate, 25% to 35% fat, and 10% to 15% insoluble fiber (11). In addition, they are a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and manganese, and contain incredibly high levels of antioxidants (11). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (10 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||8.7||0.9|
|Omega 6 (g)||28.7||2.9|
Hemp seeds are unique in that they contain stearidonic acid (SDA); an intermediary in the pathway that converts ALA into the longer-chain EPA and DHA (11). Because of the presence of SDA, it is possible that an increased amount of EPA and DHA could be made from hemp seeds (compared to other plant sources of omega 3), but this has yet to be proven through research.
Similar to flax and chia, the fatty acid profile of hemp seeds exerts a favourable effect on lipid profile and markers of cardiovascular health (11). Furthermore, hemp seeds and oil contain phytosterols, which are plant-derived compounds that resemble cholesterol but have an LDL-lowering effect (12, 13).
Which to Choose – Hemp, Flax, or Chia Seed?
What’s clear is that flax, hemp, and chia seeds are all an excellent choice and provide a good source of plant-derived ALA, along with an array of nutrients and antioxidants. Of the three, flax provides the highest source of ALA and most ideal ratio of omega 6 to 3. On the other hand, hemp is the highest in protein and provides an excellent source of zinc, while chia seeds are the highest in calcium and fibre. To me, there is no clear winner among the 3, which is why I recommend including all of them in your diet. Just keep in mind that because of the high antioxidant and polyunsaturated content of these fats, it’s best to store them in your fridge or freezer and be mindful of cooking practices that could introduce free-radicals, such as high-temperature cooking.
Flax, Chia, or Hemp. Find out why these sources of omega 3 are so important in your diets, especially for plant-based dieters.
How to Use Chia, Flax, and Hemp the *Right* Way
For many of us, 2017 was a doozy, but we here at Brit + Co are ready to hit refresh in 2018! Follow our Hit Refresh series through January for new ideas, hacks, and skills that will help you achieve (and maintain!) those New Year’s resolutions.
We’re huge fans of chia, flax, and hemp seeds, but you need to know how to use them correctly. All three of these super seeds provide fiber, protein, and a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, though they require unique storage and preparation. Here’s how to use chia, flax, and hemp the right way to maximize taste and nutrition (and avoid wasting money).
How to Store Your Seeds
While you might not have considered the expiration date on your chia seeds or hemp hearts, they can — and will — go bad if not stored properly or used soon enough. If you’ve ever opened a bag of nuts or seeds and caught a whiff of plastic, you know the telltale scent of rancid fats. (Fats and oils that have gone “off” smell a little like off-brand modeling clay. Sounds weird, but you’ll recognize the scent when you encounter it!)
Since flax, chia, and hemp are all somewhat high in fat, refrigerate all but what you’ll eat in a week or two in a sealed plastic bag or jar with a tight-fitting lid to keep them fresh. Check the sell-by date on your package (most will last up to two years). If you’re approaching that date and still have plenty left, freeze your seeds to extend their life by another six months or so.
Chia seeds have the unique ability to absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, which makes them the perfect basis for puddings and thickener for smoothies and jam. That’s also why they’re sometimes used as a vegan egg swap. But lately we’ve seen chia seeds used as garnish on top of smoothie bowls. Sure, that sprinkle of chia looks lovely, but it might not feel so lovely in your belly. Here’s why.
Why You Need to Soak Chia
Think about it: A tablespoon of chia weighs 12 grams, and it can take in up to 27 times that much water, or as much as 324 milliliters (nearly 11 fluid ounces)! If the chia doesn’t soak up water before you eat it, it’ll soak it up in your digestive tract, which could lead to some discomfort. Not to mention, dry chia seeds can get stuck in your teeth.
A good rule of thumb with chia is to use one tablespoon seeds to three tablespoons water for an egg replacement. For a slightly thick drink, stir in one tablespoon of seeds per cup of juice, stirring often. And for chia pudding, whisk in one tablespoon per ¼ to ½ cup of milk.
While flax seeds don’t have water-absorbing super powers like chia does, these little seeds do contain plenty of soluble fiber, which when combined with water gets sticky and thick. Flax seeds have their own little trick: They must be ground for our bodies to access their nutrition.
Why You Need to Grind Flax
When we eat whole flax seeds, we only get a small portion of their fiber content, and the rest of their goodness is locked inside. When you see whole flax seeds on breads and crackers, know that they’re just a garnish. You can buy ground flax seeds or grind them yourself in a blender or clean coffee grinder. Ground flax is fluffy and mildly nutty, and it can be mixed with granola, added to oatmeal, or stirred into smoothies.
Hemp, compared to chia and flax, offers the most protein and omega fats, but it functions differently when you cook with it. Hemp does contain fiber, but it doesn’t thicken or get sticky like chia and flax. There’s no real trick to cooking with or prepping hemp seeds — other than knowing what to buy.
Hemp Seeds vs. Hemp Hearts
Hemp “hearts” are shelled hemp seeds, and these are white with green and black specks. Hemp hearts have had the outer shell removed to make them more palatable, and this is what you usually find at the supermarket. Hemp seeds (above) have not been shelled, and they are dark green in color and slightly bitter.
If you’re making homemade hemp milk, you’ll want to choose hemp hearts. Hemp hearts are also wonderful sprinkled on yogurt or blended into a smoothie. However, you can use whole hemp seeds on salads, as a crunchy topping for avocado toast, or in your morning oatmeal. (You may want to coarsely grind whole hemp seeds to make them easier to digest.)
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Everything you need to know.