Flaxseed: It’s buyer beware – read the label

iStock photo

iStock photo

Processed foods  have a bad reputation. Some, though,  may offer nutritional benefit and convenience at the same time. But occasionally  you have to wonder just what is going on. This is the case with shelled or dehulled flaxseeds.

Flaxseeds are a powerhouse of nutritional goodies:  omega-3s, both soluble and insoluble fibre and  anti-cancer lignans.  But there are a couple of concerns – albeit not major ones, as I see it. Firstly, the seeds must be ground or milled to reap these benefits and then once they are ground or milled, the shelf life is diminished. So you must refrigerate or freeze them.

Considering that most of us do have these facilities available, it hardly seems like a hardship.  Yet we now have companies promoting shelled or dehulled flaxseeds which have a longer shelf life and require no refrigeration.

Have we really reached such a stage that we need such convenience?

And at what price?

Because make no mistake about it, shelled or dehulled flaxseeds are not equal to the whole food – meaning the total nutrient  package when the seeds are ground.  There may be increased benefit – financial – to the company that is selling these products. In addition, there may be perks in terms of  food technology  when these components of flax may be added to different foods. But more on that later.

Flaxseeds are composed of two parts, the outer hull and the kernel. The hull, which contains the higher amount of the fibre and all the lignans,  though, is quite hard and when intact, the seeds are indigestible making the health benefits unavailable.   The inner kernel also supplies some fibre but is the component that  provides the stellar omega-3 content.  When you grind the flaxseeds, you can reap all their assorted health perks.

New technology has now allowed the outer part of the flaxseed to be removed (almost all, if desired) which yields two parts, the hull and the kernel. In this state, the kernel need not be refrigerated.  Some of the hull may be added back in some products. But then if any of the hull is missing, there is a decrease in fibre and lignan content.

To me, if you’re looking to consume flaxseeds, the decreased hull content is a big deal. Up until recently I didn’t even know this was an issue.  I had thought there were two ways of  purchasing flaxseeds  to use on your menu:  whole seeds which you grind yourself or already milled or ground flaxseed, the latter being  a convenience product which requires refrigeration (after opening if it’s commercially packaged).

Little did I know that refrigerating a product and  it not having a very long shelf life was so difficult to handle.

One company produces various flaxseed products containing a mixture of whole flax, flax hull and dehulled flax –  some with 25% dehulled, another with 50%  dehulled and the highest contains 70% dehulled product.

When you look at these products on their websites, the companies offer lots of information about their omega-3 content but their fibre counts are nowhere to be found. Considering that  the hull  supplies more than four times the blood cholesterol-lowering and blood sugar-stabilizing soluble fibre, this is indeed a very big deal.

So what do the companies do with the hulls? Some do add significant quantities back to the mix while others  sell it as an ingredient to be added to goods such as flax oil, health food products and possibly new ones that may be developed such as salad dressings etc. There may be a very lucrative market for these items. But the question must be asked if the hulls are as powerful a disease defender when isolated from the flaxseeds as when the whole package is consumed together.

But in the meantime, if you want to add flaxseed to your menu, read the ingredient labels very carefully.

Who would have thought I would need to say this when it comes to a whole food such as flaxseed?

Go figure.


Do you buy flax? Were you aware to  look at the label to see if it is a dehulled product? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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23 Comments on “Flaxseed: It’s buyer beware – read the label”

  1. Paula
    March 10, 2014 at 5:07 am #

    I always buy whole seeds at bulk barn. No idea of expiry date ???

  2. Vini
    March 10, 2014 at 5:44 am #

    I have always bought whole flax seeds, preferably from a health food store where quantities are smaller and turn-over is greater, as opposed to a bulk food store. I then use a small coffee bean grinder and grind just what I will use in a week. I store it in the fridge. Heat and light destroy the properties we desire from ground flax, as I’ve read….so as I grind the seeds I pulse and avoid creating heat from the grinder. Quickly stored in a glass jar and kept in the dark, I can then use it on cereal, in baked goods and in meatloaf! Once that small jar is used up, I grind the next weeks’ worth. Little effort to reap the benefits of flax!

  3. March 10, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    Paula, as whole seeds can stay for a year, I would not be concerned about an expiry date if you’re using them over a number of months. But you can always store them in the refrigerator to extend the shelf life even further.

  4. March 10, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    Vini, I think getting them either a health food store or a bulk barn for whole seeds are fine (see my response above). And you’re absolutely right, grinding them yourself doesn’t take a lot of effort for the payoff you get! But for those who are buying them in a ready-to-go form, it’s not as simple as it used to be. To be honest, I was shocked to see what companies are coming out with. They think consumers can’t even deal with products requiring refrigeration! So they produce products with an inferior nutritional profile for the sake of just a little convenience.

  5. Paulette
    March 10, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    This sounds like a product that was developed after a focus group study to find out the main issues with flax seed or flax meal. It doesn’t mean that people can’t refrigerate the flax meal, it just means the company was looking for a way to give “their” flax meal an edge – something they could flag as a consumer benefit. The unintended consequence of that development is the removal of a nutritional benefit – fibre. I was sorry to read your post Rosie, now I have to check my flax meal before buying. – Good thing I recently started (this week 🙂 ) to grind flax seed as needed

    • March 10, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Yes, I agree Paulette, that companies would like to flag this as a consumer benefit. But then they should also be forthcoming about what’s missing in their product. You can’t find this on their websites. They focus on the omega-3 content but there’s so much more to flax – its stellar fibre content and actions along with the anti-cancer action. These are too big a deal to ignore for the sake of refrigeration. These companies are also selling the hulls for nutraceutical products.

  6. BJ
    March 10, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    My Bob’s Red Mill flax meal ingredient list: “brown flax seeds”

    • BJ
      March 10, 2014 at 8:05 pm #

      Oops I meant “whole brown flaxseeds”

    • March 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

      Even without your saying “whole”, BJ, I knew that Bob’s Red Mill would NOT be dehulled or shelled! Even after writing this post, I have to say that I am still shocked that some companies are moving their flaxseed products from the minimally processed food category to one that I would tell people to skip.

  7. March 11, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Heading to the pantry to grab my ground flaxseed and put it in the freezer now….. Thanks Rosie!

    • March 11, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      I’m glad to hear that Megan! If I can raise awareness, then I have done my job! I have to ask, though, how long has the ground flax been in your pantry? You might want to check whether it is rancid.

  8. January 6, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    can you recommend The Name of a Product which is a Reliable source of Flaxseed Hulls ?
    As I need the Hulls, of The flax seed to Treat my Boston Terrier who has Cushings Disease.
    I know of a Product called Lingnans for Life, Are they as good as they proclaim?
    Your Advice, sincerely Appreciated. Thank you

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

      Marykay, thanks for your email! I’m sorry, though, as I don’t feel qualified to comment on any treatments for dogs. But I can say that I don’t see any published research on their products and dogs. I only see the results of a survey they have conducted which may or may not be valid. If your dog can eat ground flaxseed, then you would know about the quality of what you would provide. Sorry for not being able to give you more advice!

      • Richard Willson
        October 31, 2016 at 9:16 am #

        I have found that whole seeds at Bulk Barn have a variation in color, whilst those that I purchase at a local health food store have a consistent colour, which is dark brown, suggesting that the seeds are fully ripe. Since unripe seeds are not safe to eat, I prefer to grind the dark brown seeds. I suspect that the Bulk Barn seeds are ripe enough to eat, but I prefer to buy those that appear to be fully ripe. The Canadian Flax Seed Council has an excellent research paper on the shelf life of flax seed products, and it reveals that shelf life is much longer than is often stated in the internet literature. Thus, you can grind flax seeds to a fine mixture and keep it in the refrigerator for a several weeks, or even longer, and this offers a more practical use of the product.

      • November 1, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

        Thanks for your comments, Richard! I do agree with you about grinding your own. It is indeed more practical than buying it already milled or ground. But it is a great option for those who want the convenience. But purchasing a small coffee grinder is not expensive and it makes for easy grinding. In another post, https://rosieschwartz.com/2014/02/24/flaxseed-much-more-than-just-a-nice-crunch/ I do point out that you can keep ground flax in the fridge for 60 days. In addition, there are different varieties of flax – for example, yellow and brown so this may be responsible for the colour mixes you are finding.Enjoy!

  9. Fara
    June 21, 2017 at 10:50 am #

    Hi Rosie,
    Have you done any research to back up you claim? If you have please provide proof. Shelling the flax seed provides an option similar to sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and hemp seed. I’m sorry but, I totally disagree with you.

    • June 21, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

      Fara, thanks for your comments but I do not agree with your comparisons. Sunflower seed shells are not commonly consumed while flaxseed hulls are regularly eaten. And of course, I did plenty of research before writing my post. Besides consulting the Flax Council of Canada for experts, I spoke to a number of researchers. This paper was written by one of those experts. rry but I’m unable here is the title: Soluble polysaccharides from flaxseed kernel as a new source of dietary fibres: Extraction and physicochemical characterization. I hope I’ve cleared up your misconception.

  10. Dorothy C
    February 17, 2020 at 1:53 pm #

    My concern about whole flax is the salicylates which are more likely to be in the hull. I have had to be very careful about the amount of salicylates I consume. Does anyone know what the level of salicylatics is in flax?

  11. Dorothy C
    February 17, 2020 at 2:56 pm #

    Just read the article you referred to, in response to Fara. Very informative. Clearly what can be done to use specific parts of the seed for different uses/products. I think I have my answer. Phenolic acids are a “significant fraction” of flax. Since salicylate is a phenolic acid, I guess I avoid flax for the present.
    Thanks, Rosie for your thoroughness.

    • February 19, 2020 at 8:46 am #

      Dorothy, while salicylic acid is indeed a phenolic acid, not all phenolic acids in flaxseed are salicylic acid. I am checking, though, what the content is and will post it here.

      • Dorothy C
        February 22, 2020 at 1:08 am #

        I appreciate that.

  12. Dr sujatha
    February 28, 2021 at 11:23 pm #

    Good source of infermatilon which I didn’t know I

    have come across flaxseed oil with omega 3 6 9
    If omega 6 is avaible inmost of our foods is it safe to take these capsules

    • March 4, 2021 at 2:06 pm #

      While I cannot provide individual nutrition advice via my website, I can answer in general. You are correct in that most of us get plenty of omega 6s via our food. I am not a big fan of flax oil in supplement form as it can go rancid quite quickly. Flaxseeds, though, offer the oil and significant amounts of fibre along with various phytonutrients. But in order to obtain those benefits, the flaxseeds must be ground. Ground flaxseed, though, because of the oil contained, should be refigerated after grinding or if you’re purchasing ground flaxseed, it should be refrigerated once the package has been opened.

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