DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have cereal for breakfast most days, adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to help add omega-3 fats to my diet. I have my own grinder and buy the seeds in bulk at my local market. A friend posed a question about whether I might be exposing myself to contaminants or germs because I do not wash the seeds before grinding. Is that something I need to worry about? Are there other options for purchasing and using flaxseeds? -- S.G., Las Vegas
DEAR S.G.: Food-grade flaxseed should arrive at the store clean and ready to eat. If they come in a package, there will be some form of freshness date, but when food is purchased from a bulk bin, the customer needs to exercise a bit more care. If you’re dealing with a food that will be cooked before consumption, that provides another element of safety, but that doesn’t apply to flaxseeds that are either eaten directly or simply ground before use.
Factors to consider with bulk-bin shopping are your knowledge and confidence in the store, as well as your inspection of the bulk-bin operation. Bulk containers should have seals to avoid dust, dirt and humidity. They should be positioned away from direct sunlight, and of a size that reflects the contents’ shelf life and the volume typically sold. Gravity-fed designs facilitate overall freshness, and they have the added feature of dispensing contents directly into the bag. Look around, and feel free to ask the manager how often the bulk bins are cleaned. If you are comfortable, and all seems fresh and clean, there is no inherent reason you can’t buy your food-grade flaxseed in bulk.
As to other options, soaking or washing flaxseeds prior to grinding raises issues, as the seeds will clump together: A soluble fiber gum comes off the seeds when soaked. If you want to rinse your flaxseeds, they should be dried completely before grinding.
Another option might be to purchase flax already ground. Proper storage is essential in that case, to avoid oxidation of the oils, given that the protective seed coat is no longer on the job. Some products may be packaged in a limited or controlled atmosphere, or be stored at cold temperatures. A well-sealed package is important in any case. One sold at room temperature, for example, is likely to have instructions to refrigerate after opening.
Opting instead for flaxseed oil will provide flax’s omega-3 fatty acids, but it also requires proper storage. A negative is that you will miss out on the other health assets in the whole flaxseed, including lignans and soluble and insoluble dietary fiber.
One final point: The main omega-3 of plant origin is known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, 18 carbons long). This fatty acid tends to be burned for energy, with only a small fraction getting converted into the longer omega-3s referred to as EPA (eicosapentaeneoic acid, 20 carbons long) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, 22 carbons long) that are found in fish and used by our body for different purposes. There is more info on flaxseeds and nutrition at the Flax Council of Canada: flaxcouncil.ca.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.