FARGO – As researchers uncover more health benefits of flax, more food companies are including the ingredient in their products. And that means more opportunities for farmers.

A clinical trial in Canada has shown that hypertensive patients who ate 3 tablespoons of flaxseed every day for a year had large decreases in blood pressure.

Grant Pierce, director of research for St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg and a University of Manitoba professor, talked about the results at the recent 66th Flax Institute of the United States in Fargo.

"They would be equal to the decreases you get in blood pressure with any drug that you're using today for reducing hypertension," he said. "And they were so large that it would be predictive of a decrease in heart attacks and stroke by 50 percent."

Researchers also found a 10 to 15 percent decrease in cholesterol levels, which would affect heart disease and stroke by about 20 percent, Pierce said.

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"They are large effects on cardiovascular disease that weren't entirely expected," he said.

It was a double-blinded, placebo-controlled randomized trial Pierce said was conducted like any drug trial.

"Our results are extremely strong for the medical field, but they offer a tremendous opportunity to the food processing industry to get it into a variety of different foods," he said.

Participants ate the flax in things like muffins, snack bars, pasta and sprinkled into yogurt and smoothies.

The patients were all on antihypertensive drugs, but still had high blood pressure, so Pierce said researchers don't know whether flaxseed boosted the effects of medication or reduced blood pressure on its own. Researchers are now working on a trial studying whether flaxseed can replace medication. It will likely be several years before they have results, Pierce said.

Kelley Fitzpatrick, a nutrition consultant with Winnipeg-based NutriTech Consulting, said more consumers are looking for flax in products.

"What we are seeing in regards to health and wellness is a real movement toward using certain healthy ingredients in food products, such as and in particular for flaxseed, omega-3, plant-based protein and fiber," she said. "We know omega-3 is very healthy for our hearts, our skin, it helps with controlling diabetes and blood glucose and food manufacturers are using omega-3 from flax."

She said milled flaxseed can be used as you would any other seed. She's even heard of moms using it in the breading for their kids' chicken nuggets.

Hans Kandel, North Dakota State University agronomist and Flax Institute president, said the number of acres of flax grown in North Dakota has decreased over the years, but there are now a steady number of producers growing the crop.

"The people who have been growing flax for a long time, they are getting good at it," he said. "It is kind of still a niche in North Dakota."

While demand for flaxseed is increasing, it can't expand too quickly because it is a relatively small crop, Kandel said.

"When you have a relatively small crop and you get many more acres, then you get more production and the price will go down too quickly," he said.

It can also be difficult to switch from soybeans and corn to flax, Kandel said, because there is a pretty high learning curve.